CONCERN for his child gave the initial impetus. Now English teacher Jonathan Chamberlain has become a crusader and activist on behalf of the mentally handicapped, not just in Hong Kong but on the mainland. It all began when, frustrated by the shortage of facilities and services available to his handicapped daughter, Stevie, he founded the Down Syndrome Association. His face turned expressionless as he spoke about his daughter. She died from pneumonia last year, at the age of eight, but her father has kept up the battle on behalf of children like her. Through the Mental Handicap Network China, which he recently set up with several business executives and professionals, Chamberlain is now offering help in one area he has been familiar with since childhood - teacher training (his father once headed the Northcote Institute of Education). Mentally handicapped children are still viewed by many in China as 'weirdos' and their teachers have a correspondingly low social status. Besides, special schools are not attractive employers, and teachers are often not required to have any relevant training in caring for special-needs pupils and take a very passive role in their work. 'One can't expect anything good to emerge from these circumstances,' laments Chamberlain, 46, who first moved to the territory from Britain with his father in 1950 and has lived here for the past 20 years. He hopes the chronic shortage of trained teachers in China will be eased through an ambitious joint project to offer special-needs teachers in Guangzhou a year-long course consisting of a half-year segment on the theory of child development, followed by six months of in-service training. The first batch of 50 teachers are due to begin their course in January. 'We hope the course will get teachers excited about what they are doing. We'll have projects that involve how to make classes more stimulating. They are very functional projects.' The programme is expected to serve another important purpose. 'What we hope to do is to give special school teachers a sense of self-worth, that their job is worth doing, to create a profession,' says Chamberlain. 'The Guangzhou authorities are extremely keen and co-operating fully to set up the course.' Through a Hong Kong PhD student working on special education projects, Chamberlain had begun discussing with the Guangzhou Education Bureau on ways to tackle the acute shortage of trained teachers for special-needs schools. Between two and three per cent of the world's population is estimated to have a mental disability. So the demand is especially pressing in China, where the network estimates about 33 million people have some diagnostically recognisable mental disability. Chamberlain feels driven to help ease the burden on families with disabled children. When the network got together with Chinese officials and experts from the British universities of Leeds and Loughborough at a seminar on mental disability in June, the participants agreed something had to be done. This paved the way for a three-way partnership between experts from Hong Kong, China and Britain, a major component of which is the provision of a one-year training course for teachers of special needs students. 'It's something very worthwhile,' stresses Chamberlain, a textbook writer and committed educator. 'The point is you should use whatever resources there are to the best advantage.' Dr Brian Stratford, a British expert in developmental disability who attended the seminar, was roped in to design and supervise the training programme. Academics from Britain, Australia and Canada will be invited to give lectures. Initially, Chamberlain's idea had been only to produce and distribute an international newsletter on the situation of the mentally handicapped population. But at the encouragement of Dr Stratford, they expanded the scope to include a training course. That idea proved popular with the Guangzhou Education Bureau which is keen to improve the teachers' practical skills and knowledge in child development. As a result, Chamberlain is looking for interested professionals from Hong Kong to serve as volunteer teachers for the course. 'They will not be paid super-high wages, but we hope to find enthusiastic young people, probably just one or two, who would like to have a year's experience in China,' he explains. Chamberlain is as yet unsure of what qualifications and background are required of the volunteers. But, he says confidently: 'This is a problem the MHNC committee expects to solve and solve well.' Its mandate is to oversee projects it sponsors and look at ways to influence the development of services in the mainland. On his previous visit, for example, Chamberlain secured the operation of the Guangzhou Federation for the Handicapped. Although reluctant to discuss his impressions of the Guangzhou schools he visited, Chamberlain says: 'A great deal can be done to utilise the resources that are available in a more creative and effective way. 'Some play equipment was not used very much. The concept of play as part of education is strange and unfamiliar to many Asian societies.' As its name indicates, the network also hopes to serve as a link between agencies with missions or considering setting up projects for the mentally disabled in China. An information centre will be set up in Hong Kong to produce a regular newsletter offering up-to-date information on services for the mentally handicapped in the mainland. There will also be an operational centre in Guangzhou, which, besides co-ordinating the teachers' courses, will also undertake research and outreach projects for parents and carers in rural areas. 'We expect to connect potential staff in this area for ad hoc projects, like social workers, parents or cadres,' Chamberlain says.' Its work will be concentrated in Guangzhou initially, but the network hopes to introduce similar services across the country. Despite the network's loose organisation, Chamberlain declares his group well suited to provide teaching programmes in China. 'We are in the position of having the best possible team. We can draw resources from around the world by our connections.' Money, however, is also key to getting things rolling, so the network plans to raise between $3 million and $4 million to support its work in the coming year. Cheques written out to Mental Handicap Network China Limited can be sent to Jonathan Chamberlain, c/o the British Council, 255 Hennessy Road, Wan Chai.