The disabled Chinese man who battled to graduate from Harvard University faces new fight for job

Ding Ding, who was born with cerebral palsy, has conquered countless obstacles in life; finding an employer who won’t judge him by his condition is his latest hurdle

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 September, 2017, 10:03pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 September, 2017, 11:53pm

Twenty-nine-year-old Ding Ding has had a tougher life than most people.

From the day he was born, he has had to get over numerous hurdles; yet, despite his lot, he has emerged on top every time.

Ding, who was born with cerebral palsy, was once written off as a hopeless case by doctors – and even by his own father. But under the care of his mother, who refused to give up on him, he conquered his condition, going on to attend school with normal children and even graduating from top universities in both China and the US.

Now, Ding has a new hurdle to overcome: finding a job with an employer who will not judge him by his condition.

The Wuhan native graduated from Harvard University with a Master of Laws degree in May and returned to China last month. He is looking for a law-related job in a big Chinese city like Beijing or Shanghai, but worries about the impression he might make on prospective employers when they see him.

“Some people think I don’t pronounce my words clearly,” Ding told the South China Morning Post, a tinge of frustration creeping into his voice. “They might also think I lack the kind of impactful personality that lawyers might be expected to have.”

Ding may have been feeling the jitters during his job-hunting trip when he spoke to the Post in Shanghai last week. But throughout his 1½-hour long interview, he spoke clearly and smoothly, communicating his views articulately.

One would not have been able to tell that doctors once expected him to grow up severely disabled.

“I’m proud to say that I qualified in all tests in my physical education classes while studying in the university,” Ding said.

Doctors in central Hubei province, where Ding was born, had urged his mother, Zou Hongyan, to give him up after he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, a condition that resulted from his brain not getting enough air when he was delivered.

Even his father took the doctors’ advice, believing the boy would be a burden on the family. When Zou insisted on keeping the boy and caring for him as she would any other child, the couple had a falling-out and got divorced shortly after.

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Believing in early intervention, Zou religiously sent her son to weekly rehabilitation sessions and learnt to massage his muscles to address the stiffness that was part of his condition.

At the age of 2½, Ding began to walk. At around five or six, he finally learnt to climb stairs on his own. And at seven, his mother saw one of her dreams for her son fulfilled when he was accepted into a primary school for normal children.

The boy took a long time to get through his schoolwork and complete assignments and tests; nor could he meet the requirements of his physical education classes. But Zou refused to give up.

She insisted that her son put in a greater effort than his classmates and with dogged persistence pushed him to keep striving.

It all paid off. By the time Ding reached high school, his teachers said they could not distinguish him from other pupils.

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He wasn’t always spared from nasty jibes at school, though.

He remembers being taunted by classmates when he was 13, in grade one in junior middle school.

At that time, pupils taking military training at the start of a semester were required to stand firmly and march uniformly like soldiers. Due to his physical problems, Ding could not handle those tasks, so he asked to be excused from the exercises.

His coach agreed and explained the exemption to Ding’s classmates. But instead of showing understanding, the children composed a song that mocked him.

“All the boys and girls laughed at me. I was suffering [from shame and embarrassment] and dared not go to school after that,” he said.

It wasn’t until his mother found out and stepped in a month later that things improved.

But what changed his classmates’ behaviour and turned their ridicule of him into admiration was his excellent scores in school; he consistently was at the top of his class, academically.

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“My teacher told them, ‘You call Ding Ding an idiot, but your grades were lower than his. You all must be super idiots then’,” he said.

“Because I’m one of the top pupils in class, the teachers liked me and the other children didn’t bully me [any more].”

In 2007, Ding was accepted into Peking University, China’s top institution. He majored in environmental science, but found that his physical problems put him at a disadvantage.

“We needed to conduct chemical experiments, but I couldn’t perform some precise hand movements, so my scores weren’t that good,” he said.

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After graduation four years later, he started pursuing another course of study: law. He studied both Chinese and American law at Peking University’s School of Transnational Law, earning his first master’s degree in law and eventually getting hired by Chinese internet giant NetEase in Hangzhou, in eastern Zhejiang province, in 2015.

Last summer, he was accepted into Harvard and flew to the US to continue his law studies at the elite Ivy League institution. He graduated in May.

Discussing his future plans, Ding said he has never had a girlfriend.

“I’m shy and am not confident in front of girls,” he said. “Girls might not find me fun as I don’t talk much about movies or sports but am more interested in reading books on history and law.”

His mother hopes he will find a girlfriend soon.

“Since we started being interviewed by local media about 10 years ago, I’ve come to learn that cerebral palsy in fact happens to a lot of babies,” Zou said. “I hope our stories can give other families hope and encourage them to carry on with rehabilitation procedures.”

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She recalls, years ago, bumping into a woman on the street whose son had attended rehab classes with Ding two years earlier. The woman’s family gave up on the treatment for their child after only a month because the sessions were so painful the mother didn’t want to see her son continue to be “tortured”.

“When she heard that my Ding Ding was able to study in a normal primary school, she instantly burst into tears. At that time, her son, who had earlier been in the same condition as mine, couldn’t even get out of their home,” Zou said, adding that she felt sorry for that family.

Ding said he certainly couldn’t have made it this far without his mother.

“She is my lighthouse,” he said.