Hebei Province, China – Deep in the polluted flatlands of Hebei Province in northern China, Mengjie School for the Blind is home for around 100 visually impaired students from rural regions.
“I am determined and confident that I can provide blind people with the skills they need to enter society. They don’t need to be thought of as a burden, and indeed they can become the pillars of the family,” says Mu Mengjie, who founded the school in 1999.
Outside of major urban centres on the country’s prosperous east coast, most schools are ill-prepared to provide for students like these, and those that do enter the classroom often attend special schools isolated from the rest of society.
The issue is particularly pronounced in rural areas. A chronic lack of infrastructural resources means many visually impaired children remain at home with little to no schooling.
In this context, Mu’s school is an anomaly. It offers a free education and accommodation for disabled children whose families struggle to provide for them.
“At the beginning, the students didn’t even know how to use chopsticks, we’ve come a long way since the school started,” says Mu Lifei, a teacher at the school.
“When they first arrive it can be difficult to build a relationship. Their parents often only provide for their very basic needs and at first, they pull away from us.”
The school has struggled to find qualified teachers willing to live and work far away from major cities, but a close network of teachers and family members have come forward to help the students.
For many of the older students, the school provides vocational training in massage.
Mu claims that over 300 students have graduated from the school to go on and find work. Employment opportunities are extremely limited outside of massage, but Mu believes the financial independence has made a real difference in graduating students’ lives.
“Many of the parents say they regret only finding out about the school so late. They never thought their blind children could earn their own money – sometimes even more than normal people.”