In 2014, a blind massage therapist named Li Jinsheng 1 took the National College Entrance Examination (NCEE) in Braille, the first to do so in China. To everyone's surprise, he turned in blank answer sheets for two of the four subjects, which generated strong criticisms from the general public and blind communities. This article examines the conditions, process, and aftermaths of this event to consider what it means to use an anti-discrimination framework and an impact case approach for disability rights advocacy. Data comes from observation of media representations and discussions, interviews with key actors and stakeholders, and a focus group with blind college students.

Our analysis of Li's case shows that in China, anti-discrimination actions often take the form of using individual cases to attack single, identifiable policy barriers, and they are typically carried out by people who are not directly impacted by the state's paternalistic biobureaucracy or the vulnerabilities it generates. As such, these cases might not sufficiently represent the desires and struggles of most people with disabilities, and the individualistic approach might further alienate the disabled communities. While effective in dismantling the particular policy barrier, such anti-discrimination actions may fall short of addressing more systemic, structural issues. This article ends with reflections on the tensions in using anti-discrimination impact cases in China and beyond, and on how to work on deeper struggles and build broader alliances in disability rights advocacy.


In June 2014, Li Jinsheng, a 46-year-old massage therapist, took China's National College Entrance Examination (NCEE) in Braille. This event caught much public attention, for Li was widely celebrated as the first blind person to be able to take the entrance exam for mainstream universities instead of exams for special colleges designed for blind students. Surprisingly, Li submitted essentially blank exam sheets for two of the four subjects, saying that he was not fluent in Braille. This turn of event brought Li many criticisms. Sighted people accused him of wasting public resources, and blind people chastised him for bringing them disgrace. 2 These criticisms in turn frustrated staff at Yirenping, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that cultivated and supported potentially impactful cases such as Li's to dismantle policies that discriminate against people with disabilities and other marginalized groups. 3

Why did Li agree to take the exam if he was not fluent in Braille? Why had Yirenping chosen to work with Li in the first place? Why were people so frustrated with Li's NCEE performance? And how has the event actually impacted blind people's access to mainstream higher education? This article will address these questions. By closely examining the conditions, process, reception, and effect of Li's NCEE participation, this article explores general tensions of using an anti-discrimination framework and an impact case approach for disability rights advocacy in China and beyond.

To understand the controversies around Li's NCEE participation, one must interrogate different parties' logics of rights, which link together ideas of identity, entitlement, moral responsibility, and government protection (Kirkland 2008: 2). Situated in particular social relations and institutions (Engel and Munger 2003), these logics in turn help to frame social issues, guide people's actions, motivate social movements, and shape their outcomes (Benford and Snow 2000). Here, the key logic espoused by Li and his supporters at Yirenping was that of anti-discrimination. Originated in Euro-American countries, the anti-discrimination logic assumes that each person is a free and independent individual equal to other individuals. It sees discriminatory attitudes or treatment from other people, institutions, or policies as the biggest barrier facing a person's freedom and equality. It thus demands the elimination of disparate treatment and, in the case of persons with disabilities, the provision of reasonable accommodations to achieve a level playing field (Heyer 2015). In order to fight against discrimination, advocates commonly use the approach of impact litigation, which entails identifying, working on, and publicizing a legal case representative of an issue to set precedents for future cases (Cummings and Rhode 2009).

In recent years, the anti-discrimination logic and the impact litigation approach have gained prominence in China. The socialist planned economy (1949 – 1970s) assigned people to different categories—such as urban and rural residents—and thus to different institutional arrangements of life and livelihood, while maintaining a dynamic balance between these systems. The market economy emerged since the 1980s has shattered this balance, while the lingering institutionalized distinctions have obstructed the free flow of labor force that the market encourages. As social tensions aggravate, people have begun to fight against various types of discrimination, including that of birthplace, gender, age, illness, disability, and so on, especially targeting discrimination by government agencies (Zhou 2012). Many of these fights have been led by lawyers and NGO workers, who learned the impact litigation approach from foreign experts and practices and began using it in the early 2000s (Fu and Cullen 2010). Because precedents are not paramount in China's legal system, Chinese advocates are more focused on using litigation to arouse media attention and generate public pressure on government entities or other stakeholders (Liebman 2017). Because of litigation's difficulty and high demand on resources, Chinese advocates have also applied this approach to non-litigation cases, such as Li Jinsheng's, in order to gain broader sociopolitical impact (Lu 2019).

Despite their growing importance, few studies have examined the workings of anti-discrimination impact cases in China, and the only exceptions tend to assume the cases' smooth operations and positive effects (Fu and Cullen 2010; Lu 2019; Parkin 2017). In liberal democratic contexts, disability studies scholars have criticized the anti-discrimination logic for its narrow conception of inequality and marginalization, and for its turn away from more systemic, structural issues (Bagenstos 2009; Heyer 2015). Other scholars have also suggested that an over-reliance on impact litigation might take away the energy and resources required for broader political mobilization, that the symbolic victory gained with a case might obscure the substantive victory needed for real social change, and that the elite-driven agenda of impact litigation might marginalize clients and communities (Scheingold 2010). Building on these insights, this study uses the controversies surrounding Li Jinsheng's NCEE journey to further examine how NGOs and professional advocates actually construct an impact case, how the case represents and is received by communities impacted by the injustice in question, and how it may work with or against other mobilization strategies in changing public opinions and social practices, especially with regards to disability.

In China, disability-related affairs are typically handled by what Matthew Kohrman (2005) calls "biobureaucracy," i.e. a series of institutions that determine how persons with disabilities should be treated and that provide, coordinate, or supervise services accordingly. For instance, since the 1950s, children with disabilities have been placed in special schools that prepare them for a few designated careers (Hallett 2019). 4 In 1988, the China Disabled Persons' Federation was founded, and it soon became a ministry-level organization with branches throughout the country to register people with disabilities and to oversee programs for them (Dauncey 2007). These biobureaucratic institutions operate on a paternalistic logic: they see persons with disabilities as welfare subjects who are incapable, who pose burdens to society, and who require protection and rehabilitation in segregated settings (Stein 2010). Because of the power they have, the resources they command, and their loose connections with one another (Qu 2020), these institutions constitute a complicated network on which most disabled persons depend and with which they have to negotiate. In 2008, the Chinese government ratified the United Nation's Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD), which has since spurred vibrant civil society advocacy outside of, and often against, the biobureaucracy (Huang 2019). As one of the key advocacy actions led by a pioneer NGO, Li Jinsheng's case provides a lens into the country's nascent disability rights movement, especially how the movement contends with the paternalistic biobureaucracy and the cultural practices it has shaped.

Our analysis shows that in China, anti-discrimination actions take the form of using individual cases to attack single, identifiable policy barriers. As most persons with disabilities are made dependent on the biobureaucracy and the pathways it sets, NGO workers often have to find people who are not directly impacted by the system to carry out the impact cases. As such, these cases might not sufficiently represent the desires and struggles of most people with disabilities, and their individualistic feature might even alienate the disabled communities. Moreover, while effective in attacking a particular policy barrier, the anti-discrimination actions may fall short of addressing the complex inequalities that have been formed over a long period of time, that produce various vested interests, and that profoundly shape both public opinions and intimate attitudes. These insights help us reconsider approaches to disability rights advocacy in China and beyond.


The two authors began collecting data for this article in late 2017, three years after Li Jinsheng's NCEE participation. The timing means that people's memories of the event were still relatively fresh, but one could already see the event's short- and mid-term impact. We collected multiple kinds of data for the research. First, we interviewed Li Jinsheng about his life history, participation in the NCEE, and response to the public's criticisms. Ma Zhiying also interviewed a former staffer of Yirenping who had worked with Li about the event, the organization's strategies, and his response to people's criticisms. In addition, we interviewed three blind activists and one with physical disability, none of whom were affiliated with Yirenping, about their experiences with the education systems and approaches to advocating for inclusive education. Second, we collected policy documents on college admission, other exams, and the education of people with disabilities from the early 2000s to 2017, focusing on changes over time. Ni Zhen also interviewed two teachers at a special high school for blind students about how those policies unfolded in practice and how they shaped everyday teaching and learning. Third, to understand the educational experiences of students with visual disabilities, we conducted a focus group with seven students at a special college. As a blind person himself, Ni Zhen also wrote a memo on his own experience with the special school system. Note that all the individual and focus group interviews received informed consent from the participants. Fourth, we collected news reports on Li Jinsheng to assess how media representations had changed with his performance. We also gathered tweets and comments about Li Jinsheng on Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, from August 2009 (the start of Weibo) to December 2017. Earlier tweets revealed Li's social participation prior to his NCEE advocacy, while tweets from late 2013 onward reflected the general public's attitudes toward the event. For responses in the blind communities, we examined posts and comments on Aimang Bulletin Board System (BBS), the largest online portal for blind people in China. All the tweets, posts, and comments were visible to the public.

For data analysis, we cross-verified and triangulated the data gathered from interviews with different persons, policy documents issued at different points, and media coverage over time to reconstruct the process of Li's NCEE participation. Such cross-verification and triangulation also allowed us to analyze what had happened in examinations and education of people with disabilities after the event, and to what extent those changes (or the lack thereof) could be attributed to the event. Moreover, we coded the media reports and online discussions for people's attitudes toward Li's NCEE participation and toward inclusive education in general. Throughout our data collection, analysis, and presentation, we follow what Michael Burawoy (1998) called "the extended case method," using a detailed account of a case to reveal broader social processes and social forces that shape disability rights advocacy in China. Therefore, reconstructing and recounting Li Jinsheng's case from multiple perspectives is part and parcel of our analysis.


In order to understand Li and Yirenping's action, one needs to first understand the education and examination systems in China. The NCEE came into place soon after the establishment of the People's Republic of China. Suspended during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), it was restored in 1977 and is still going strong today. Held annually by the Ministry of Education, the NCEE generates scores that serve as the basis for college admission decisions (Gu and Magaziner 2016). The NCEE has thus been the most important and life-changing exam for generations of Chinese people, and its guarantee of formal equality is widely cherished (Howlett 2017).

For decades, the NCEE was only available in paper-and-pencil tests, and therefore inaccessible for people with visual disabilities. Since the 1950s, the state has been running a separate education system for students with various disabilities. In this article, we use special schools to refer only to schools built for children with visual disabilities. These schools provide primary, secondary, or vocational education to a small proportion of children with visual disabilities. In 2016, there were 8,644 students with visual disabilities studying in special schools, while the number of visually disabled children (aged between 6-14) exceeded 130,000 (Ministry of Education of the People's Republic of China 2017). These special schools typically emphasize occupational training over academic education, except for the 15 special high schools that teach academic content (Hou 2018). Most students with visual disabilities are thus ill prepared for taking the NCEE. Moreover, although the 2008 revisions to the 1991 Law on the Protection of Person with Disabilities (hereafter "Disability Protection Law") required that state-run exams provide blind people with Braille or electronic test papers or personal assistance (National People's Congress of the People's Republic of China 2008), such accommodations were not publicly available in the NCEE until 2014. Meanwhile, almost all the special schools use Braille as their primary teaching language, and thanks to the popularization of computers and smartphones since the 2000s, many blind people—whether or not they have attended special schools—have learned how to communicate electronically.

To improve the education for people with visual disabilities, powerful blind individuals have pushed the government to create more options. In the 1980s, Xu Bailun, a blind man and self-styled education expert, put forward the idea of "studying along with the [mainstream] class" (suiban jiudu) to encourage mainstream schools to enroll children with visual disabilities. With the support of the China Disabled Persons' Federation, it quickly became a nationwide government initiative. Under this initiative, a mainstream classroom can admit one to two students with physical, visual, hearing, or mild intellectual disabilities (Lv 2012). Because it does not emphasize accommodation or support for students with disabilities in class, some have criticized this initiative for leaving students to "muddle along with the class" (suiban luandu) (Chen et al. 2006: 27), achieving inclusion in name but not in reality.

In 1987, Gan Bolin, a blind musician, persuaded the government to set up an alternative higher education institution for students with visual disabilities, the Special Education College of Changchun University (Gan and Yu 2014). The college offers majors in massage therapy and music, and it has its own annual entrance exam, available in both Braille and large print, to test students' intellectual and occupational knowledge. Following the lead of Changchun University, several other universities have also established special colleges with designated majors. These colleges, together with the special primary, secondary, and occupational schools, constitute a smooth education pipeline for students with visual disabilities, but they have also segregated these students and formed vested interests to maintain this segregation (Hallett 2019).


Given these options, students with visual disabilities often have to navigate between the mainstream education system and the special one. Our interviews with current students in the special college and with blind activists who were college graduates show that their experiences were shaped by ingrained social practices and complicated decision-making processes involving parents, teachers, and other local stakeholders. Three of our interviewees spent their entire student lives in special schools, because those were the only choice that they and their parents knew. Although they had all at some point dreamed about attending a mainstream university to avoid becoming a massage therapist, they did not try to take the NCEE: they either did not believe that the low education quality in the special high school would allow them to gain good enough scores in the competitive exam, or were discouraged by teachers who insisted that blind people could not survive in mainstream universities or workplaces. Two other interviewees started out in mainstream schools and then switched to special schools: one of them could not read what was written on the blackboard or in the textbook with his deteriorating eyesight, and he received no accommodations; the other one struggled with her academic performance in the mainstream classroom because of the teachers' neglect. Still two others completed their entire education before college in mainstream settings. One of them failed the NCEE by a small margin, so he took the special college entrance exam the following year, not knowing that the 2008 Disability Protection Law had promised accommodations in the NCEE. The other one managed to do rather well in a mainstream high school, but was at a loss about what she could do in the future other than being a massage therapist. After discussing with her parents, she eventually chose the well-trodden path of attending the special college.

However, a few people have fought hard to access the NCEE and mainstream universities. When he was studying at a special high school in the early 2000s, Ni Zhen and another student petitioned the principal to allow them to take the NCEE. The principal sympathized and asked teachers to help all the rising seniors prepare for the exam. However, the preparation only lasted for a semester, as people soon realized that the NCEE policy would not change in the near future. Unwilling to give up, Ni contacted the Ministry of Education and the provincial Department of Education, but they all refused his request, saying that there was no precedent.

Jin Xi was luckier. 5 In the interview, he told us that as he went through mainstream schools with deteriorating eyesight, he and his parents learned how to ask his teachers and classmates for accommodations, such as reading textbooks or test papers aloud to him. When he was in high school, he requested permission to take the NCEE. Because he was a top student, the administrators were supportive of the request, and they had it approved by local government officials. When he took the exam in 2007, an examiner read the test paper aloud to him, and he used a plastic frame he had prepared to guide his handwriting on the answer sheets. For multiple-choice questions, the examiner filled out the answer sheets for him. Jin successfully got into a mainstream university, majored in law, went on to obtain a master's degree—and now a PhD. He was probably the first blind student in China to have taken the NCEE in an alternative format, but he and his supporters kept a low profile, partly because the examiner's help in filling out the answer sheets for him went beyond the approved accommodation, thereby falling into a legal gray zone.

These cases show that, up until recent years, most students with visual disabilities had to adjust their education and career expectations and take the special path because of inadequate policy information, discouragement from teachers and sometimes parents, and inaccessibility of mainstream schools and workplaces. Those who were discontent with the special school system typically lacked the wherewithal to challenge the status quo. Occasionally, there were individuals who succeeded in accessing the NCEE and mainstream higher education, but the success was hinged on the individual and the family's negotiation skills and social capital, as well as on other people's sympathy and willingness to help—sometimes by quietly bending the rules. As such, these rare successes were too idiosyncratic and secretive to make a broad impact.


In 2012, based on reports from the Chinese civil society, the United Nation's Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities criticized the Chinese government for segregating students with disabilities by putting them in special schools. Shortly after that, China's Ministry of Education approached a number of NGOs and disabled persons' organizations for their input on revising the 1994 Education Regulations for Persons with Disabilities, which had prescribed the establishment of the special school system (Hallett 2017). Many activists saw the revision as a golden opportunity to promote inclusive education, and they tried hard to influence this process. Regarding higher education for students with visual disabilities, some activists advocated for incremental and system-wide reforms, ranging from providing students at different stages with ongoing support and role models to diversifying their future career paths. With these measures, they believed, students with visual disabilities would gradually come to demand access to mainstream higher education, and universities would be willing and ready to accept them. 6

A different advocacy strategy was adopted by Yirenping, an NGO born from struggles against the discrimination of people carrying the hepatitis B virus (HBV). In 2003, an HBV carrier who had obtained the highest scores in his city's civil servant recruitment exam was denied employment because of the job's restrictive physical examination standards. Lu Jun, an activist and HBV carrier himself, helped that individual win a lawsuit against the municipal government. That case and a few others aroused much media attention, forcing the government to abolish the discriminatory regulation. In 2006, Lu Jun founded Yirenping to fight discrimination in other areas. Regardless of the area, the organization always tended to single out one or a few key institutional barriers—usually discriminatory policies—and sought to bring them down through impact cases (Fu 2014).

Yirenping began working on disability rights in the early 2010s. It chose blind people's access to mainstream higher education—especially access to the NCEE—as a main focus because of the exam's cultural significance, and because of the heavy barrier that the exam format posed to blind people. (By comparison, people with physical and hearing disabilities could at least take the exam, although deaf people might lose the listening comprehension scores in the subject of foreign language.) According to Han Qing, a former staffer of Yirenping, the organization needed a blind person to publicly test this barrier and challenge it. Because the blind employees there had already graduated from special colleges, the staff reached out to seniors in special high schools, and a few were interested. However, the local education authorities discouraged those students, saying that there was no precedent and that the NCEE was useless for them. The students did not dare to antagonize officials who controlled their future, and they did not want to waste time on an apparently futile action at a critical moment in their lives. In the end, they all gave up. As a result, Yirenping had to find a person who had no immediate stake in the NCEE or university education but who was willing to fight the system. Li Jinsheng became their choice.

Li was born in Queshan, a rural area of Henan Province, in 1968. As he told us in the interview, he was injured in one eye when he was six, and then lost sight in both eyes at the age of twenty-six. He went to local mainstream schools, but dropped out after a year in high school because of the family's poverty. He later pursued vocational education in the hope of becoming a doctor in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). When his father denied his request to take TCM courses at a local school, he fasted for three days in protest, forcing his father to accede. Then as the family struggled to come up with Li's tuition, Li persuaded the school to waive his tuition, and he sold the family's limited food grain to provide for his room and board, disregarding his father's objection.

In 2000, Li learned that the 1991 Disability Protection Law stipulated disabled people's right to education, including vocational education, and that it encouraged disabled people to pursue education through self-study. A new light dawned on him, and he started pursuing a self-study junior college degree in TCM. He asked sighted friends to read the textbooks aloud to him in everyday learning, but the exam for the degree had no other format than the paper-and-pencil test. Li made five trips to Zhengzhou and one trip to Beijing to ask officials involved for an accommodation. The officials kept passing the buck, so he wrote a letter to the Vice Governor of Henan.

In our interview, Han Qing described Li Jinsheng as an "able person" (nengren) "who can make a commotion… with his reasonable grievances." Able persons in this sense are similar to what Kevin O'Brien calls "rightful resisters" in Chinese politics, who can "employ the rhetoric and commitments of the powerful"—such as promises of law—in "challenging the powerful head-on" (O'Brien 2013: 1051-2). In response, authorities may bargain with these persons, provide them with benefits, and even absorb them into the government to appease them and maintain social stability (Lee and Zhang 2013). Indeed, according to Li Jinsheng, upon receiving his petition letter, the Vice Governor of Henan instructed his subordinates that Li's "perseverance is invaluable, and we should make him work for us." After that, the local education authorities agreed to provide Li with a reader for the self-study exam while he wrote down the answers himself. In addition, the provincial Disabled Persons' Federation offered Li an opportunity to take specialized massage courses in Zhengzhou for free, and he accepted. Later, Li was even asked to chair the Blind Persons' Association of the Disabled Persons' Federation in his county. He turned that down, preferring to stay in and work with the rank and file.

In 2011, Li Jinsheng participated in a training workshop that Yirenping organized on advocacy skills. After sharing their life stories, all trainees were asked to come up with three advocacy activities on which they would like to work. Li's list included making electronic testing available in the national exam for blind massage therapists, making the bus system in Henan free for blind people, and having a local official publicly apologize to blind people for his insulting remarks. Yirenping staff appreciated his ability to fight the system and his enthusiasm for blind people's collective interests. They asked him to sign up for the NCEE, and he immediately agreed. 7

Research shows that in China, most impact cases have been carried out by individuals not directly impacted by the discrimination and injustice in question, such as public interest lawyers and NGO workers (Fu and Cullen 2010; Lu 2019). Our analysis suggests that this is because impacted persons are subjected to the paternalistic institutions and may feel too vulnerable to challenge them. Meanwhile, individuals like Li are able to carry out the impact case, not only because they are savvy enough to fight the system and willing to do so for the collective good, but also because of their structural removal from the particular institutionalized vulnerabilities—in this case, removal from the need to maintain good relationships with stakeholders of college admission and higher education. Such structural removal enables the impact case, but it also sows the seeds of complications and controversies.


On December 12th, 2013, Li submitted his registration form for the NCEE to the Queshan County Bureau of Education. The county officials shuffled his case to the city, the city to the province, and everyone tried to talk him out of taking the exam. One official said: "Yes, the law allows for Braille test papers, but we just don't have them." Another said: "We are being responsible for you by not letting you register" (Li and Song 2013). Thanks to his past experience interacting with the government, Li secretly audiotaped these comments. Yirenping staff sent the transcripts to journalists in mainstream media, whose reports then scandalized the public. 8 Li also threatened to sue every official who said no, from the county level to the national level (Niu 2014). Meanwhile, Yirenping staff organized some side activities to maximize pressure on the government. They asked eight blind persons across the country to jointly request the Ministry of Education to disclose the number of people who had ever used Braille or large-print test papers in the NCEE, and the ministry failed to provide an answer. They also staged a cardboard door symbolizing the NCEE in front of the ministry building in Beijing, and a blind staffer acted to be blocked by that. Thanks to all these efforts, Li's NCEE registration was soon approved. Yirenping then had parents of visually disabled students deliver a silk banner and a letter of appreciation to the ministry, thanking it for the decision (Han 2014). In this whole process, Li's struggle was portrayed as difficult and groundbreaking work with implications for the entire visually disabled community.

On June 7, 2014, the first exam day of the NCEE, Yirenping staff and many journalists gathered at Li's massage clinic. A large group of local blind people also came on their own to send him off. They adorned him with a big red flower on his chest, with a ribbon that read: "One person's exam, ten thousand people's progress." They even hired a marching band to walk him to the site. As Han Qing explained during the interview, "Blind people are despised and bullied all the time, so I guess they just felt proud and vindicated. Li's exams gave them a reason to come out and walk in the open."

That morning, as people waited eagerly to hear Li's experience, news came out from the exam site. Li received a number of accommodations there, including a separate room, Braille writing tools, Braille exam papers, an armchair, a reader, another person providing technical support, and 30-40 minutes of extra time for each subject. To everyone's surprise, however, Li turned in a blank sheet for the first subject, Chinese. "I'm not fluent in Braille and spent almost all the time reading the instructions," he later told supporters and journalists waiting outside. "I was too slow in reading [Braille]… I wrote on the answer sheet that I needed electronic test papers" (Niu 2014). That afternoon, on the subject of math, Li submitted another blank sheet. Han Qing and other Yirenping staff were shocked, and they provided him with some quick training on basic testing skills that evening. 9 As a result, he got some scores on subsequent subjects.

Before the exam, Li had never complained to the media about the inappropriateness of the accommodations. In our interview, Li insisted that he had requested electronic test papers, for he had gone to mainstream schools and never learned Braille there, but he had been using computers since 2007; yet the Ministry of Education had only informed him about the test format a week before the exam, leaving him little time to improve his Braille skills. He also acknowledged that he had been too busy receiving media interviews and running his massage clinic to prepare for the exam. In any case, success in the exam had never been his goal. He told us: "I had actually never believed that I could score high enough to be admitted by any university, and I'm too old to be a student anyways. The point was just to do this [advocacy]."


The two blank sheets brought significant media attention upon Li, for they contrasted sharply with the heroic image in which he had been cast. On Weibo, thousands of people responded to the news, and most of them expressed doubts or criticisms of Li. Some people saw him as an opportunist who simply wanted to gain fame and money by making waves. Some criticized him for wasting precious public resources, because he enjoyed "special services" provided by the government but did not earn it by working hard to prepare for the exam. Still some others concluded from Li's case that only special exams and special universities were suitable for blind people. A Weibo commentator put it this way: "Caring for the disabled doesn't mean letting them live in the same way as normal folks do."

As for the blind communities, immediately after Li turned in the first blank sheet, a post titled "A blind test-taker turned in blank sheets after loud advocacy" appeared on Aimang BBS. It gathered more than 700 comments in a few days. Some commentators criticized Li for his unpreparedness, saying that any serious test-taker would know to skip the instructions, and that it only took one a few weeks to learn Braille. A blind activist we interviewed connected the issue of Braille to the principles of standardized testing: "Where is the limit of fairness? Can we imagine a sighted person who doesn't know how to write Chinese characters going to Tian'anmen Square and shouting that he wants to take the NCEE? If you don't know Braille, why can't you learn? After all, Braille is a language too." According to these commentators, the NCEE rightly expects certain skills and characters, such as language proficiency, familiarity with the exam formats, and the grit to learn what it takes. These skills and characters may manifest differently in different groups, but they should never be disregarded.

Like the general public, blind people were also concerned with Li's waste of resources, but their concern was rooted more in a fear of the sighted world's reactions. Some people lamented that Li had missed the opportunity to overturn sighted people's stereotype of and unfamiliarity with blind persons. For instance, a person we interviewed contrasted Li's "careless" attitude with what he and his peers had done when studying massage in a special vocational school: "Before we went to intern at a hospital, we pulled many all-nighters to memorize the human anatomy and to practice on the mannequin, simply because we didn't want to lose face for blind people… [Sighted] people knew very little about this community, and every opportunity to interact with them is precious." Some other people were worried that Li's action might give sighted people—especially government officials—grounds to refuse requests for help and accommodations in the future. When we mentioned this concern to a blind activist, he said: "I don't think the government will just take back what it has offered, but Li's action has indeed failed to convince people [why we need accommodations]. People will think that, well, maybe blind folks don't really have this need; they've just made it up."

Some blind people found it difficult to accept the media's claim that Li was the "first blind NCEE taker," as well as Li's acceptance of that. Commentators on Aimang pointed out that Jin Xi had taken the NCEE seven years before Li, and that blind people from Shanghai had long struggled for participation, with some ultimately succeeding in taking the exam and attending local mainstream universities. Some people, especially the non-Yirenping-affiliated blind activists whom we interviewed, were also concerned that Li's one-man show concealed the systemic nature of inclusion work and the collective efforts for it. In particular, one activist was worried that Li might be treated as a token: "When the public demands something, government officials would love to be able to point to a case and say so and so has already achieved this. They don't care about whether other people will have the same thing… When a hero is created, it could overshadow the needs of ordinary people."

Yirenping staff and supporters found these criticisms unfair. They felt hurt by fellow activists' lack of understanding, and they attributed blind people's negative reactions to a sense of collective inferiority and a lack of rights consciousness. After all, they insisted, everyone had the right to take the exam, regardless of the scores one could achieve. A person who claimed to be a trainee at Yirenping and a friend of Li posted on Aimang: "We all worked hard to fight for blind people's rights. Li only represented himself and he only lost his own face [in the exam]. Blind people should stop labeling themselves as one group and being oversensitive." In our interview, Han Qing said: "Blind people hoped that Brother Li could win honor for them, but that was not his role… Brother Li could not win first place in the exam, but he could be the first one to take the exam."

From Li's action, blind people's responses, and Yirenping staff's defense, one can see that the impact case approach is individualistic, and that it may conflict with the collective desires and struggles of impacted persons. The approach is individualistic, because it is carried out by an individual who is removed from the institutionalized vulnerabilities typical of the impacted group. Because of this structural removal, Li could challenge the NCEE without caring too much about his own performance or whether he received the appropriate accommodation; after all, his goal was to be able to take the NCEE with any accommodation. This action, however, collided with many blind people's struggles to gain others' recognition of their learning needs, others' willingness to help, and others' trust that they would reciprocate kindness with good faith efforts. The impact case approach is individualistic, also because it deems impacted persons as passive beneficiaries of the advocacy and does not attempt to mobilize or even recognize them as a group with its own history and agency. In Li's case, Yirenping activists dismissed blind people's collective experiences of vulnerability and marginality, and they ignored how generations of blind people had fought hard for respect and inclusion in various ways. It was thus not surprising for blind people to feel misrepresented and alienated by the action.


Feelings aside, have people's concerns with Li's action been borne out by the facts? Our research indicates a mixed answer. On the one hand, in response to Yirenping's and other activists' campaigns over the years, a series of policies were issued to accommodate blind students in higher education. In March 2014, the Ministry of Education released that year's Notice on Doing the Work of Mainstream University Recruitment Well, requiring that blind students be provided with Braille or electronic test papers and staff assistance in the NCEE (Ministry of Education of the People's Republic of China 2014). In May 2015, the Ministry of Education and China Disabled Persons' Federation jointly published the Interim Administrative Provisions on Disabled Persons' Participation in the NCEE. It specified the accommodations for test-takers with different disabilities, including large print for low-vision individuals, Braille for blind individuals, and elimination of listening comprehension for deaf individuals. Notably, electronic test papers did not make the list (Ministry of Education of the People's Republic of China and China Disabled Persons' Federation 2015). Activists and special school teachers whom we interviewed suspected that it was because officials wanted to avoid any potential leaks, hacks, or shortage of computers in certain areas.

In recent years, some other high-level standardized tests have begun to provide accommodations to people with visual and other disabilities. For example, in 2017 alone, the National College English Tests Band 4 and Band 6 began to provide blind participants with Braille papers; the Qualifying Exam for Psychological Counselors provided reading and dictation assistants to blind participants; and the Qualifying Exam for Social Workers allowed blind participants to take the test on computers. All these breakthroughs were achieved by people with disabilities who applied themselves to challenging the unaccommodating tests: some people had been fighting for years, while others were inspired by Li and/or directly supported by activists once affiliated with Yirenping (Han 2018). An activist told us: "Li's action has opened people's minds. They suddenly realize it is the social and institutional barriers that limit their imagination." Indeed, most of our interlocutors—even those who criticized Li's action—acknowledged that he had opened a door for latecomers by allowing them to think outside the box.

On the other hand, back to the actual participation in the NCEE, progress has been much more limited. In 2017, 564 persons with visual disabilities requested accommodations. Only 7 of them were blind individuals who requested Braille test papers, and the rest were low-vision individuals who requested large print test papers (Cai 2017). From 2015 to 2019, a total of 33 students took the NCEE in Braille. 10 Some of those blind test-takers achieved high scores on the exam, and most of them ultimately attended mainstream universities. Yet 33 are a minuscule number compared to the 2,056 persons who were studying at special high schools as of 2018 and who could use Braille (Hou 2018). Why has blind people's NCEE participation rate remained so low?

Our research shows that, despite the change in test formats, many barriers still exist in higher education. First, most mainstream universities are reluctant to admit blind students or flatly refuse to do so, leaving blind students with a much more limited number of schools to choose from than what their NCEE scores would entitle them to (Zhou 2015). Second, according to the blind activists who have been supporting them, the few blind students admitted to mainstream universities are faced with many challenges: learning materials are often not in accessible formats; support for these students largely comes from non-disabled student volunteers, who can be overprotective and patronizing; and some universities even require blind students to live off campus with a family member who is supposed to help them move around and provide everyday care. Some blind students have also been transferred involuntarily from one major to another, as faculty members seek to help them avoid barriers in future careers, such as the still inaccessible Teacher Qualifying Test. As a result, these students might not have the enriching college experiences that they hoped for, and they still end up being trapped in stereotypical professions such as special education, social work, or, once again, massage. News of their frustrating college experiences travels fast in special high schools. A teacher told us that her students' enthusiasm for the NCEE peaked after Li's action and then quickly dropped: "In the past, students regarded the NCEE as the mountain to conquer. Now that they've realized the challenges on the other side, they have to think long and hard about whether they really want to go through all these uncertainties and disappointment."

Third, before 2016, blind students were allowed to take both the entrance exams for special colleges and the NCEE. In other words, they were simultaneously considered for admission by both systems, and they could choose where to go based on the results. Since 2016, however, blind students have had to choose between the two sets of exams—and hence between the two types of universities—before registration, meaning that those who want to try getting into a good mainstream university no longer have special colleges as backups. Because they are not confident about the education they have received and their ability to compete with sighted students, few blind students dare to take that risk (Cai 2017). According to a blind activist we interviewed, this forced choice partly resulted from special colleges' lobbying, for these institutions had an interest in keeping blind students and the government funds for their education in house. It also partly resulted from government officials' obsession with formal equality, for they did not see sighted students as also having two options. That activist was opposed to the logic of formal equality: "If I [as a blind person] choose to attend a mainstream university, I could face unemployment upon graduation because the job market is not ready. The risk facing blind students who take the NCEE is thus far greater than that facing sighted students. We should encourage blind students to try out more possibilities of life by giving them a leg up [and keeping both options available to them]."

In sum, the work of Yirenping and Li Jinsheng has helped push government sectors to confirm, specify, and expand the legal promise of providing disabled test-takers with accommodations. However, now that the NCEE has opened its door, few blind people have chosen to walk through it, because many other barriers still exist. These include the lack of quality education for disabled students at primary and secondary levels, special colleges' desires to keep disabled students, officials' obsession with formal instead of substantive equality in college admission, and the inaccessibility of mainstream universities and workplaces. Given the fragmented nature of the Chinese state's governance (Lieberthal 1995)—that is, different departments often do not act in coordination and may in fact have diverse or even conflicting interests and habits—simply winning reasonable accommodations in the NCEE is far from sufficient to change the deep-seated educational segregation facing people with disabilities.


Our research shows that in China, the anti-discrimination logic of and the impact case approach to disability rights advocacy are characterized by a narrow policy focus, an individualistic assumption, and a structural removal from communities impacted by the injustice in question. These features are shaped by the country's paternalistic biobureaucracies, the paths of dependency they set, and the feelings of vulnerability that are mediated by both institutional environments and one's intimate milieus. While anti-discrimination impact cases may be effective in taking down certain policy barriers, they are not as effective in changing the systematic inequalities facing people with disabilities, and they risk alienating people with disabilities in the process.

These tensions may have been dramatized by the high stakes of the NCEE and the zeroes that Li received, but they also exist in other areas of disability rights advocacy in China. This is true even when the impact case is carried out by an impacted individual. For example, after the first national Mental Health Law was passed in 2012, prescribing patient autonomy as a principle in psychiatric hospitalization, some activists helped a person who had been involuntarily hospitalized for 17 years file a lawsuit against the institution and successfully got him discharged. However, Ma's (2020) research shows that this oft-celebrated case has not changed the widespread practice of involuntary and prolonged hospitalization in China, because the advocacy around this case only emphasized the inmate's legal right to independence, but not the needs, feasibility, and structural reform required for people with psychosocial disabilities to live and receive services in communities. As a result, caregivers, professionals, and government officials still tend to see involuntary hospitalization as the only means to provide care, and they have held onto it using various legal and institutional loopholes; meanwhile, they brush aside the impact case as just stopping service to an exceptionally competent individual who did not need it. Even Lu Jun (2019, 555) recently acknowledged that although fighting HBV- or HIV-based discrimination was simple, "[m]any other forms of discrimination…are closely tied to institutional frameworks, cultural practices and vested interests." They are thus harder for actions that target a single policy—or public policies alone—to reach.

While the tensions uncovered by Li's case are shaped by the particular cultural, institutional, and historical dynamics of China, they are relevant for understanding disability rights advocacy beyond the country. After all, the U.S. disability rights movement, which has profoundly shaped the UN CRPD and global disability rights movements, is centered on legal mobilization around the principles of non-discrimination and equal citizenship (Heyer 2015), and scholars have argued that the narrow focus of non-discrimination may prevent actions from "get[ting] at the deep-rooted structural barriers that keep too many people with disabilities from participating fully in the community" (Bagenstos 2009: 149). With the adoption of the UN CRPD and the development of anti-discrimination laws in many countries, international donors and experts have been training and supporting domestic NGOs to monitor the implementation of these documents, to use impact cases and other mobilization strategies to challenge discriminatory policies and practices. As Stephen Meyers (2015) pointed out, rights advocacy in this framework may fail to address the needs of marginalized groups at the local level and weaken their voices in political participation.

This article provides a rare case analysis of how the anti-discrimination logic and the impact case strategy, dominant in global disability rights movements, actually unfold on the ground. Given some of the common movement mechanisms, one may expect to find high-profile advocacy actions featuring a narrow policy focus, an individualistic assumption, and a structural removal from impacted communities in countries where elite, cosmopolitan NGOs set the movement agenda. As NGOs select "able persons" to lead the actions while sidelining the impacted communities and dismissing their experiences as unenlightened, one may even argue that a discursive and structural ableism exists in global disability rights movements. To confirm this expectation and substantiate this argument, we need more comparative studies across different settings. Back to the context of China, we need to take an explicitly transnational and translational approach to examine NGOs like Yirenping, asking how exactly their work was shaped by international discourses and funding. These inquiries are beyond the scope of this article.

Given all the tensions unearthed in this study, how should we—engaged scholars and activists—do disability rights advocacy? At the very least, we should not treat anti-discrimination impact cases as the end of the story, lest they take away the energy and resources needed for bigger struggles. We should strive to understand what barriers impacted persons face on a certain issue, how those barriers are connected, and what they think should be prioritized in actions. This knowledge will help us devise ways to raise the general public's awareness of the barriers, to challenge their paternalistic attitudes toward disability, and to engage and center people with disabilities in processes of change. We should also work with other stakeholders—especially family members, service providers, and policymakers—to develop more inclusive and rights-based services, to channel their vested interests and preconceptions of care to these alternatives. Finally, we should remember that challenges from impacted persons and communities do not indicate their inferiority or backwardness, but rather the incompleteness of our actions. Such incompleteness, in turn, signals new opportunities to improve our vision and broaden our alliance.


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  1. In this article, we follow the customs of Chinese language and put the family name of a Chinese person first and the given name last, except in the authors' list.
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  2. In China, visual disability is categorized into two broad categories: low vision and blindness. Since an individual's visual capacity may change over time, and since the NCEE was largely inaccessible to both blind people and those with low vision prior to 2014, we examine the experiences of both groups. Meanwhile, because stakeholders typically deem inclusive education of blind people—those who cannot benefit from optical devices—more difficult, and because Li's NCEE participation directly spoke to that conception, we pay more attention to blind individuals' experiences. Moreover, because the government, the public, and the blind communities themselves sometimes use "blind person" to refer to anyone with a visual disability, we follow the custom of the field when necessary.
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  3. Because of government crackdown, Yirenping was closed in 2015.
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  4. "Special school" is a native term that refers to any school that accepts only students with disabilities.
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  5. For privacy reasons, we anonymize our interviewees except in places where the identity of the interviewee is easily recognizable.
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  6. Interviews with the four non-Yirenping-affiliated activists in December 2017.
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  7. Interviews with Li Jinsheng and with Han Qing in December 2017.
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  8. Interview with Han Qing.
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  9. Interview with Han Qing.
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  10. The Ministry of Education and the CDPF do not report these statistics. This number is calculated from information in media reports; thus, the actual figure may vary by a small margin.
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