Students Staff

11 March 2016

Breaking down educational boundaries leads to Education UK Alumni Award for Jianwei

Jianwei Zheng leads an English language class

Jianwei Zheng leads an English language class

“Only through education can we gain more freedom." Those are the words of Jianwei Zheng who is the first totally blind student from southwest China to complete the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) and then go on to complete a Masters in the UK.

The Essex graduate’s inspirational story has led Jianwei to success in the social impact category of the Education UK Alumni Awards in China organised by the British Council.

Now back in his home city of Chongqing after completing his Masters in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) at Essex, Jianwei is working as a private English tutor. He is also sharing his experiences as part of his efforts to change perceptions of disabled people within Chinese society and to inspire others with disabilities to achieve their goals. His new ambition is to establish a new kind of school in China.

“I am aiming to realise my childhood dream,” he said. “The dream that the life of disabled people is not crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination based on disability, the dream that little disabled boys and disabled girls can join hands with other little boys and girls without a disability to go to school together.

“To help more students without and with disability like me to achieve their goals, I'm going to found the first really inclusive school in China, where students with and without disability can learn together to contribute to educational equality.”

He has already had a huge impact on how blind people in China and beyond are perceived through his own talks alongside numerous media interviews.

“My story and endeavours have been widely recognized by the public and government in the Chinese world,” he said. “More people with disabilities have been, are and will continue to follow my steps to change their life through education, learning English, and even studying abroad.

“I've helped many people with their English learning and IELTS preparation by encouraging them with my own story and sharing my experience, textbooks and materials.”

Jianwei's story begins

Jianwei Zheng at our Colchester Campus

Jianwei Zheng at our Colchester Campus

Jianwei has been totally blind since birth, but refused to accept the limited options he was offered within Chinese society.

“I first entered a school for the blind at the age of seven,” he said. “It was a hundred kilometres away from my home town and teachers told me repeatedly ‘You must learn massage hard, otherwise, you'll have to be a fortune teller or even a beggar!’. Consequently, I began learning massage at twelve without receiving a proper basic education.

“I never believed visually-impaired students could only go to a school for the blind, or just be a masseur, fortune teller or beggar. I had a dream that people with visual impairment could one day be free to pursue their dreams like people without disabilities.

“Because of the strength of my self-belief, I gave up my job as a masseur and started learning English on my own under very difficult circumstances at the age of twenty-six as a total beginner.

“I had no teacher, I taught myself and decided what and how to learn; no textbook was available for me so I worked like a manager of a printing house and made information available to me by scanning, asking family members and friends to do proofreading or even typing for me, and then printing material into Braille.

“This determination led to me becoming the first blind candidate to take the IELTS in southwest China, and completing my Masters in TESOL at Essex, an opportunity which is unavailable in China because graduate schools don't offer an entrance exam to blind candidates.”

Following his dream to Essex

Jianwei Zheng with fellow students

Jianwei Zheng with fellow students

Desmond Thomas, TESOL course leader at Essex, offered Jianwei a place in the course despite his limited teaching experience. He is full of praise for Jianwei: "Here was a person who was determined to break out of the confines of his disability, travel to another country and study alongside experienced teachers who were also native speakers of English."

Jianwei’s experience at Essex in 2013-14 provided him “with an opportunity to learn the possibility of realizing my dream”. It also made him feel certain that educational equality, inclusivity and diversification of employment were central to improving disabled people's lives in China.

He now hopes to complete a PhD to conduct further research into inclusive education and continues to develop his skills as a language teacher.

“Since returning from the UK,” he said. “I've been exploring and researching the possibility of teachers with visual-impairment teaching English to learners without disability. I've found being a teacher with visual-impairment is itself a valuable resource for teaching practice rather than a negative factor.”

National role model

Jianwei Zheng teaching

Jianwei Zheng teaching

Official recognition for Jianwei has included being one of just 165 disabled people who were honoured as national role models at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in May 2014.

This is the highest honour for a disabled person in China and during the ceremony Jianwei met President Xi Jinping, Prime Minister Li Keqiang, Vice Prime Minister Liu Yunshan and Vice Prime Minister Zhang Gaoli.

Now he hopes winning the social impact category of the Education UK Alumni Awards will once again challenge accepted ideas: “This is the first time an Education UK Alumni Awards has been presented to a disabled person. It lets more disabled people in China know their efforts are valuable and recognizable, and shows the public the ability and capabilities of disabled people.”


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