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June 19, 2015

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Contest aims to empower disabled

FOR Li Yan, the teacher of an autistic student named Tom, a set of magnetic flashcards is helping her communicate with the severely challenged boy in ways that were once all but impossible.

“What did you eat for lunch? Noodles or dumplings?” Li asks Tom, showing two cards with pictures. “Dumpling,” Tom indicates, pointing to the dumpling card.

“It is a sunny day today, or a rainy day?” She asked. “Sunny,” Tom answers, again pointing at the card.

Tom’s simple actions are enough to produce tears of joy in Li. “That was the first time Tom responded to me spontaneously,” she explains.

The boy suffers from severe autism and has been studying for six months with Li at the Shanghai office of Huiling China, a national group that treats and educates people with mental disabilities.

The cards used by Li feature a variety of everyday objects familiar to Tom, such as toys, a broom and several kinds of foods. They were designed by Zi Zai Design Studio for the CHU Social Design and Innovation Competition, a contest that awards innovative products and services aimed at empowering and employing people with mental disabilities.

The contest is organized by the Kaiwu Education Space of Action Innovation in Hangzhou, the International Design Institute of Zhejiang University, Huiling China, the Hangzhou Wanwan Hosting Center and World of Art Brut Culture.

The final pitch for entries in the contest was held last weekend, when 22 finalists — including designers from Zi Zai — were selected. Awards will be given to the top three projects next week.

Participants in the contest are required to submit projects and proposals after a four-week workshop. This workshop provides empathy training classes, speeches by renowned public-spirited entrepreneurs, and opportunities to volunteer at various Huiling branches as well as the Hangzhou Wanwan center. For contest organizers, it’s hoped that such experiences will inspire more practical and thoughtful submissions.

Along with the flashcards mentioned above, one group of entrants created a portable easel designed to be used by persons with autism. Another team created a special pair of scissors to make craft activities easier for the mentally disabled.

Submissions weren’t limited to physical objects though. Some groups crafted business plans that could be implemented by, or in collaboration with, persons with disabilities. These included a plan to teach mentally-challenged individuals how to run a bean farm, as well as plans for a hostel that would employ adults with disabilities.

A panel of marketing and design experts will evaluate the submissions in terms of their market potential and help the winners bring their submissions into wide use.

“Being marketable and sustainable are two of the most important considerations, because we want members of these special groups to sustain themselves,” says Tao Danxia, a member of the jury and director of Huiling Hangzhou.

According to a national census, there are over 12 million mentally-disabled persons on the Chinese mainland. Fewer than 10 percent of these individuals are employed.

“The aim of the contest is to alleviate employment problems via designs — either business models or assistive devices and products targeting at the special group,” says Wen Guangkai, co-founder of Kaiwu, the main organizer.

According to Wen, the contest is the first of its kind in Asia. Having lured hundreds of participants, organizers are now looking for support from local foundations to bring more of their plans into reality.


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