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China's Hope for Mentally Challenged People

By Shuting Tan

· Health,Asia

Xihan’er Car Washing Center is dedicated to helping mentally disabled people earn a living and realize their potentials. Diinsider talks to their founder Cao Jun to learn about their story.

Diinsider: Please briefly introduce your founding team and the vision of Xihan’er Car Washing Center.

Cao Jun: Xihan’er Car Washing Center is a social enterprise established by me and nine other parents of mentally challenged individuals. I have had this idea for a long time and have been constantly looking for founding members, Many parents of mentally challenged youths echoed my sentiments and got motivated to establish the car washing center together. We carefully selected parents who share the same vision that had enough financial capacity to establish the founding team. Our initial capital was one million CNY (around 150,000 USD).

The main problem we are trying to address as parents of mentally challenged people is, that when we are no longer alive, our children may be supported by society.

Diinsider: How did you come up with the idea to establish the car washing center?

Cao Jun: When my son was young, we tried to wash cars together and I discovered that he found it interesting to do. However, I did not think that far. Later on we had the idea of creating an employment platform for mentally -challenged friends. Based on the idea, we created the center.

Diinsider: What is the toughest challenge your founding team has encountered? How did you solve it?

Cao Jun: Mentally challenged people are the center of all our work. The center provides a platform for them to have better employment opportunities, create social values through their hard work and win respect from the society. What we can do is to create the environment and opportunities for them, but we are not so sure whether the center would be sustainable, which largely depends on their performance for washing cars. We have basically three considerations:

First of all is whether mentally challenged people have the capacity to wash cars. The answer largely depends on the functions of hands for mentally challenged people. There are usually two ways to measure the capabilities of hands, one through utilizing their strength, and the other through paying attention to details. Most of mentally challenged people find it difficult to concentrate on detailed things. As a result, washing cars would be an ideal way to engage them as it requires physical strength instead of detail-focused minds. At the car washing center, their job mainly focuses on watering cars, pushing bubbles, removing dusts and cleaning tires. Our expectation is that systematic training would help them fulfill these tasks over time.

Second, our concern is whether mentally challenged people can maintain high quality work. Our goal is to compete equally with other players in this field, which requires paying attention to the quality and time spent in car washing. We divide the whole procedure into different elements, and distribute work according to the extent of their mental challenges. We hope to make sure that everybody is doing what they are good at and that they cooperate well with other members. In addition, since many people work together in a single procedure, we can minimize the time of washing cars into 20-30 minutes. This has maintained client satisfactory to a large extent.

Third, whether mentally challenged people can persist in this job, and find joy in their work. According to our practice, they have explored interesting and significant things from washing cars, and enjoyed the company of their team. Occasionally, we will play some music while they are working which allows them to enjoy more and concentrate on their jobs.

Diinsider: Do you follow an operation model? What do you think is the advantage of this model?

Cao Jun: The center adopts corporate management models and each center has 10-15 employees with different levels of mental challenges. Two trainers, three experts and one full-time manager would accompany them and provide them with training modules as well as assistance in their daily operations.

Our employees sometimes have challenges in learning by themselves, so the center breaks down operations into different and clear modules, and encourage them to evaluate their performances, and assign them to the best positions. When they are free, they tend to take training courses or exercises that help them improve their body.

Our center has 3 advantages compared with other similar initiatives:

First, it proves to be able to improve employment for mentally challenged people. According to the 2nd census of population with disabilities in China, less than 40% of people with disabilities are employed, and only 10% of people (out of 12 million people) with mental challenges are employed. Even though the government has taken actions to require public and private sector to maintain minimum 1.5% employment opportunities for people with disabilities, many companies are still reluctant to employ them. Our center is here to change the game.

Second, our center is replicable, and can provide plenty of employment opportunities. There is a huge need for car washing and one center can only serve its clients within 3-kilometer distance. In addition, the establishment of a car washing center is not so costly and training is relatively easier as well. We have also included a set of evaluation criteria for reference of our employees, so that they can track their personal growth.

Third, our center strives to provide high quality services to attract more customers, and our employees are encouraged to earn a living with their skills and services, instead of sympathy from the general public. This is more sustainable.

Diinsider: What kind of feedback do you get from their families?

Cao Jun: Parents are always supportive. Even at the beginning, many parents were already supporting my idea as they thought this would be a feasible solution for their children. So far, our center has operated in Shenzhen for over 2 years, and there have been many parents visiting us who learned about us from the news. They expressed

their willingness to send their children to our center. However, due to our limited capacity we could not accommodate all the requests yet.

Diinsider: Does the center face any financial challenges? How do you deal with them?

Cao Jun: As a social enterprise, our income mainly comes from payment for our car washing services. In addition, we also sell car accessories and include waxing and maintenance to our services. Challenges occur during the rainy season as there would be fewer clients then.

We are trying to push the government to pay attention and potentially provide subsidies for mentally challenged people to get employed. We are also calling on professional trainers who can spend more efforts in training the employees. This will significantly reduce burden of organizations such as our center.

Diinsider: Were there any referable case in Taiwan or other areas when you chose this business model? Did you have conversations with other domestic and foreign organizations and share each other’s experience? If so, in which aspect and what extent were you inspired?

Cao Jun: Before founding the center, I made a 1.5 years’ field research in places like Taiwan and Japan, wishing to learn the business concepts and models from organizations which provide employment for the mentally retarded people, as well as their pros and cons. However, few cases were rather implicative due to the huge discrepancies among fields like culture, economics, and politics.

During the process of planning and implementing our projects, we remained committed to our original ideas to assist our mentally retarded friends in employment. The fact that they could not find proper jobs only suggests the need to perfect the work like ours. As long as an appropriate platform is set for them, they can also do a good job: they are capable of creating social values by their hand, and turning themselves from benefactors to contributors!

Diinsider: Would you like to share some most touching experience since the very beginning of this project?

Cao Jun: I would like to share two of them. The first concerns our employee Jiashi Li. Once when things were less busy, we had day-offs. Jiashi surprisingly felt very anxious, and called me after work to ask if he was not wanted. I felt pain and joy at the same time. I worried about whether he would enjoy his holidays like other people, but I was also truly delighted to see him value his work so much.

The second experience happened one year after we launched the project. One customer asked fir a bargain. This was such a surprise to me. Initially, our clients would visit us and give us a big amount of money and not expect the change from us like a form of donation.

However, they started to bargain with us, suggesting they treat us no different than other ordinary car washing stores. Yes, we provide car washing services well enough to compete within this industry. The fact that our customers recognized this is no doubt a great inspiration to us!

Diinsider: Currently the center has attained the focus from domestic and forensic media, academics, and government, and is bringing some positive impact to society. Did you expect all these before? And what impact are you expecting in the future?

Cao Jun: To be honest, we did not expect such a big focus. This is some unprecedented practice, and we need to explore by ourselves. If we made it, we can spread our models and create more jobs for mentally retarded friends. If we failed, we will not stop exploring, as this concerns the future of those children, and we all expect a good life for them. It was really unexpected to be noticed by an increasing number of media. We just made some tiny steps to try, but the positive feedback from society suggests that we are on the right track.

Diinsider: What is your plan for the next three years and the future?

Cao Jun: Firstly, the most important thing in the future is asking the government to introduce more assistance policies that provide supportive employment for people with mental disabilities. We also hope that the government can offer the preferential policies ofrent subsidies and give more allowances for the special education teachers.

As a social enterprise, although we can get a profit through providing car washing and other value-added services, the profitability is still relatively weak and it cannot be completely independent as other ordinary enterprises. If the government policies are available, it will be easier to find effective ways to realize the dreams of these mentally handicapped.

Secondly, promoting the idea of Xihaner Car Washing Center’s operation mode to more areas. At present, the car washing centers have been established in Xining and other cities. Each car washing center provides up to 6 to 10 jobs for the mentally handicapped.

Thirdly, we will continue exploring other new ways of employment for those with mental disabilities. Although the services such as car washing can solve the mentally handicapped’s employment, I have always been considering the possibility of expanding to farming and manufacturing. Apart from providing services, can the people with mental disabilities provide more products to meet the market’s consumption demands?

From my personal perspective, at this point, the companies should play a pioneering role in exploration. The government can provide the guidance in terms of policy, however, when it comes to exploring new areas, the companies have more advantages.

Lastly is on nursing care for the mentally handicapped. Aside from providing job opportunities and helping them integrate into the community, the provision of pensions for them is also a significant part. In this respect, the China Disabled Persons’ Federation (CDPF) has provided comprehensive guidelines and suggestions. The key however, lies in how the local Disabled Persons’ Federation takes actions.

In the future, we will still pay more attention to the development of specific measures on pension policies and how they will serve the demands of the mentally handicapped.

Diinsider: What kind of support do you want to facilitate the sustainable operation of Xihan Car Wash Center’s?

Cao Jun: I think the most important thing is that government could introduce relevant policies to support mentally handicapped people’s employment. Without those policies, it is hard for us to keep working on it for a long time.But with those policies, we could have prerequisites to operate it sustainably, and have its own advantage to attract cooperation and investment from other companies.

Diinsider: In the end, can you please tell us what is your motivation or belief on this project?

Cao Jun: I want to help these kids to find their ways of making a living. I still have 17 years until I’m 60-year-old. In other words, I’m in my best time. So, I would like to use my full energy to help them.

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