Recently, we got a chance to sit down with Kaitlyn Szydlowski, a Fulbright scholar who researched the quality of welfare for children with disabilities in rural China. As she recounted her experiences, we couldn’t help but be infected by passion and optimism.
So how did you end up in China?
I actually came to China for the first time because Mount Holyoke started their Mandarin program here in Beijing. They were offering Freeman scholarships and I applied and got one. I originally started studying Chinese for business purposes but it was in my first summer here in 2006 that I really got hooked on China as a country, especially China’s economic development and what it meant for the population. I just became fascinated by Chinese culture and society.
What have you been researching with your Fulbright?
For my Fulbright, I was researching social welfare provisions for children from rural China, specifically those with cerebral palsy, and their caretakers. I spent most of my summer in rural Anhui, outside a city called Fuyang. It was actually the region that pioneered the communal health care system during the Mao era but recently it’s become famous for its milk scandals. Its one of China’s poorest counties.
Some of the most memorable moments were being welcomed into the homes of families, when they let me sit down and talk to them about their experiences, about having a child with CP in rural china. I wanted to know why they decided not to abandon their child as many people do in this country. It was inspiring, seeing how much they care and how much they want to give their child a better future.
How did you become interested in researching this topic in China?
Once when I was up in Wudaokou, there was little boy with CP begging outside the grocery store. Having worked with kids with disabilities in the States for many years, especially those with CP, it was something I was curious about and I wanted to learn more about.
Ninety percent of the children in orphanages in China have disabilities, so its rare and wonderful when you see a family choosing not to abandon their child. I really wanted to understand what families who kept their kids were dealing with. Where are they getting their support? Are grandparents helping out? Where are they getting their money and where are they getting health care services?
I’m sitting in these homes and talking to the parents and asking them questions. They don’t want me to go in and say, “How do you feel? Is the government supporting you?” They look at me like, “Can you fix my kid? Does my kid have hope? What do i do?” So I bring materials down from Handicap International, they have training materials, specifically for CP kids so I bring a ton of stuff for the parents. Through this I realized there is such a drastic need for training.
What projects are you working on now?
One thing I’m doing is organizing a Hefei-based training program for all the NGOs that work with kids with disabilities. They will come together, hopefully this month, with specialty doctors and therapists from Shanghai, and do just a day or two of training, specifically speech therapy and some CP stuff. It’s so expensive to access speech therapy in this country and a lot of the families need it. A lot of the teachers need to do it, however limitedly. Save the Children will be funding it and I’m really excited.
What has this work taught you?
I would say that you can study Chinese and read books about China and economic development and social change and you can live in Beijing or you can live in Shanghai, but until you’re really in places where the economic policy or social change or welfare policy are trickling down, where it takes a bit longer for things to develop and improve, can you say you really understand the dynamics of China’s growth and development and the nuances of change?
I think this year, particularly with my research, has opened my eyes to a lot of what is actually going on. People can sit back and criticize the government and criticize what’s happening but there’s always a reason and at the end of the day, no one wants a kid with a disability to have an unfortunate situation.
What’s the hardest part about doing research like this?
You have to work to develop relationships. To get access for my research I had to navigate complex social relationships and devote a lot of time and energy into creating opportunities. This is not an easy place to gain access as an outsider. People are welcoming and people are warm, but not on every level. I think that it takes a much more exentsive understanding of Chinese and local cultures and local individuals and their motivations to really understand what’s going on and be welcomed.
Your research sounds incredibly demanding. How do you maintain your optimism?
The reason I wanted to do this research because I think how a society accommodates, enables or empowers its people with disabilities is fascinating. In the states I’ve worked with kids and adults with CP but they use different methods to commnicate. They have lives, they have income. I see the possibility. There’s hope. A lot of my motivation and my optimism comes from that, but that type of thinking is just starting to develop in China.
Just by being there and talking about how we think about disability back in the States would get people excited. I really felt like there were certain moments where people walked away from their interactions with me feeling like, “Wow, this is a little bit different. This is a different way to think about disability and it’s really inspiring.”
A lighter question: favorite place in China?
Absolutely the NGO Xiangfei in Fuyang. I had a great time with my friends in Hefei at Hefei Chuanya but my favorite was living in the dorms at Xiangfei and sleeping with eight diffrent girls to a bed and waking up at 6:30 and having breakfast and being a part of the team and helping with the kids.
There was no shower. I remember one time we hopped on a motorbike, four of us to a bike, to try and go to the shower facilities in the city. For some reason—this was the 14th of October—the city was out of hot water until the 24th. Nothing. That type of stuff tests your character and your patience but you laugh it off with your friends and that was my favorite spot in all of China, hands down.
Photograph courtesy of Kaitlyn Szydlowski.