“Hello, I am a deaf courier. Your package has arrived,” a voice comes out from Xu Shengliang’s mobile phone as he presses the doorbell of a residential building.
Xu is one of tens of thousands of couriers in Shanghai, driving electric bikes through streets and lanes and climbing several storeys to deliver goods ordered from online shopping websites to their new owners. Unlike most other couriers, Xu is deaf and unable to speak to the customers – the voice from his mobile was recorded by a colleague.
He is among 40 members of China’s first deaf courier team which was established in Shanghai six months ago after the pandemic began and online shopping flourished. At 6.30am every day, Xu and his fellow couriers begin their work by unloading parcels from trucks and sorting them. Two hours later, they start delivering the packages one by one.
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Xu, 27, who started his delivery career at Wusheng Courier three months ago, is now a seasoned courier delivering more than 200 packages a day, earning him 8,000 yuan (US$1,160) a month, double his previous income.
“I am happy with this job,” Xu told the South China Morning Post through a sign language interpreter.
“What attracts me most is that I am treated equally here. My non-disabled colleagues endure the same hardships I do and we are paid according to the same standard.” Couriers earn 1.5 yuan (22 US cents) for each package delivered.
As a disabled person, Xu is fortunate to have this job. In China, with a disabled population of over 80 million people – including 30 million of employment age – it is still difficult for people with disabilities to get hired, let alone find jobs that give them a sense of equality.
The employment rate for people with disabilities is roughly half that of non-disabled people, while the income of their families stands at 60 per cent of those without disability, according to Yang Lixiong, a labour and human resources professor at Renmin University of China.
“The employment for disabled people is better than one or two decades ago, but there is still discrimination [against them]. Tagging and stigmatising them based on their physical disability still exists,” Yang said. “Their employment quality needs to be improved.”
According to the 2019 Disabled People’s Development Statistics Bulletin issued by the China Disabled Persons’ Federation, 8.55 million people with disabilities report that they have jobs.
Among them, 749,000 are employed by government departments and companies, which are required by law to hire people with disabilities at around 1.5 per cent of total employee numbers. About 291,000 work in factories and institutions, 642,000 work for themselves, 144,000 work in public welfare-related positions and 143,000 take up auxiliary or assistant jobs. Some 2.28 million work in a “flexible way” rather than full-time hours while more than 4.3 million are farmers.
The government’s efforts to boost employment among the disabled had helped, Yang said. These initiatives include free education, incentives to encourage companies to hire them and preferential loans for people with disabilities to set up their own businesses.
“But the challenge from the economic downturn and the Covid-19 pandemic is obvious. Even university graduates without any disabilities find it hard to hunt for jobs,” Yang said.
Liao Juan, a researcher from the school of management at Capital Normal University in Beijing, said most disabled people had low paid work. Even though more disabled people had a university education, it was rare for them to get a “high-quality” job.
She said companies did not want to hire disabled people, thinking it was troublesome and would bring them extra management costs.
“Many companies don’t think it’s their social responsibility to hire the disabled. They prefer to pay fines [for breaching the government quota],” she said.
Yang from Renmin University said some disabled residents in wealthy areas were disinclined to work thanks to subsidies and preferential policies by local authorities.
But this was not the case for Xu. Before being employed as a courier Xu, from Anhui province in southeastern China, had been jobless for a year. He graduated in graphic design from a college in 2016 but has never worked as a designer because of communication barriers caused by his inability to hear and speak.
He was employed as a clerk and then a packaging worker, both for a salary below 4,000 yuan a month.
“I earned too little to support my parents,” Xu said.
Gu Zhong, founder of the Shanghai’s deaf courier team, said he recruited the deaf workers six months ago to form the team because he wanted a platform for hearing-impaired workers to earn relatively high incomes through hard work.
“I want to help them and this thought is from my own experience. My parents are both deaf. So I totally understand they have been discriminated since childhood because of their parents’ disability and the family’s poverty,” said Gu, who is not deaf. He also works as a sign language news host at Shanghai-based Dragon TV.
Gu said many disabled people worked in factories and were paid less than their non-disabled counterparts.
“As I know, some disabled people learned cooking at vocational training centres, but restaurants won’t let them be chefs; instead they tell them to wash bowls,” Gu said.
To support these deaf couriers, Gu hired several other workers to help the team communicate with customers. When the deaf couriers find no one is at home to receive the package, they send text messages to the customers.
“We also have several sign language teachers to communicate with the deaf couriers. These are additional costs, too,” Gu said. “So far I have not yet made profits from hiring deaf couriers.”
However, this does not undercut his ambition for the team.
“I believe they will be more familiar with their job. For example, Xu Shengliang at first could only deliver dozens of parcels every day. Now he can send as many as 300,” Gu said.
“My plan is to hire 300 deaf couriers before this year’s Singles’ Day Shopping Festival [on November 11],” he said.
Yu Lina, a Hangzhou-based businesswoman who contracted polio as a three-year-old, advised disabled people to have an objective understanding of their physical advantages and disadvantages before deciding which industry or job to go into.
Yu, founder of a stenography company, said disabled people should refine their vocational skills and improve their competency to increase their chances of being hired.
“From this point of view, there is no difference between the disabled and the non-disabled,” she said.
Over the past three months, Xu has not only become more efficient at his job, but he has also gained recognition from residents.
“He has delivered goods for us a few times. He did a good job,” said an elderly woman with the surname Pan. “We know he is deaf. It’s not easy for him. We support him.”
Xu said the residents’ praise warmed his heart. He is more hopeful for the future.
“I will work harder and my goal is to earn 10,000 yuan a month,” Xu said.
More from South China Morning Post:
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- ‘I look at their ability, not their disability’: Dignity Kitchen founder on training his Hong Kong workforce
- Hong Kong ‘must catch up with Taiwan’ to become a disability-friendly city
This article Shanghai’s deaf courier team delivers good news for millions of disabled workers in China first appeared on South China Morning Post