Voices in Education

Mothering Special Needs Children in Contemporary China
Across the globe, children with special needs are often depicted as tragic, welfare dependent, and undesirable. In China’s patrilineal context, handicap is widely believed to originate from the mother’s side of the ancestry, and birthing a disabled child is considered bad karma, casting a shadow over the mother’s moral and social standing.

How do mothers with special needs children (hereafter “special mothers”) cope with the stigma of disability and gender patriarchy in navigating an educational future for their children in today’s China?

In my 2020 Harvard Educational Review article, I draw on an ethnographic study of a special education school in Guangzhou to explore motherhood’s intersection with disability, patriarchy, and state power as the site of social vulnerability as well as moral potentiality.

As I demonstrate, the global normative ideologies and China’s sociocultural conditions “handicap” special mothers for birthing imperfect offspring, therefore failing in achieving both personal and national goals. Special mothers in this study worked hard to be good mothers against many odds. In-laws blamed them and marriages fell apart after the birth of a special child. Strangers looked at children’s behavioral meltdowns and judged the mothers for incompetence. Relatives shunned their children at family gatherings. The need for accompaniment in school and the prolonged caring role further exacerbate a mother’s employment difficulty. As these mothers navigated the difficult terrain of child-rearing, they engaged in exhausting emotional labor and developed the arts of acceptance, sacrifice, and negotiation—a “special competence” often invisible and unrecognized—to cope with relentless stigma and marginalization. While segregated special schools remain an enduring stigma, they also provide an anchor of solidarity for special mothers to find friendship, to network, and to re-envision the meaning of their life.

I argue that through everyday practices, special mothers carved out a moral account to re-narrate their stigma as essential normality in fulfilling parenthood demands—things all mothers do, such as sacrifice, acceptance, and advocacy—in the face of insurmountable difficulties. They were both “suffering” and “morally striving” subjects who offered critique and raised new questions about social justice.

My study underscores several long-standing challenges in disability education: How can we move beyond a normalcy-deficit lens in understanding special childhoods and motherhoods? How can we become cognizant that disability is a profoundly relational category, as a society can handicap people with or without a disability? And how can we radically reimagine disability as a central aspect of the human condition and a possibility for moral transformation?

About the Author: Jinting Wu (https://orcid.org//0000-0002-5233-1659) is an assistant professor of educational culture, policy, and society at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. An anthropologist and comparative education scholar, she conducts research in the areas of rural minority education, disability and special education, immigrant youth and families, and educational meritocracy on the global stage. She is the recipient of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) Division B Outstanding Book Recognition Award for Fabricating an Educational Miracle (State University of New York Press, 2016) and, in 2018, the AERA Critical Issues in Curriculum and Cultural Studies Special Interest Group Early Career Award.