Zhang Ting of China celebrates after winning the women's 4x100m relay T53/54 final during the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games at the National Stadium in Beijing on September 16, 2008. (LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images)

For decades, jobs for the disabled in China have mostly been limited to masseuses, matchbox makers and hairdressers. And today, the few skills-training programs the government offers remain in those areas.

Unemployment remains a daunting problem for China’s disabled. And it is frustrating for activists who point to the nation’s booming economy — now the world’s second-largest, after years of unparalleled growth.

In many ways, the right to work is a foreign idea for most people, said Li Zhen, a social worker in Inner Mongolia. “People think, even a college graduate can’t find a job, why should a disabled person be offered one?” Li said.

The exact percentage of employed disabled people is hard to pin down, with estimates varying widely, depending on definitions of disabilities and employment. But according to China’s government agency on disabilities, in 2010, out of 85 million disabled people in the nation, only 4 million in the cities and 17 million in the countryside were employed.

At an international conference in Beijing this week on disabled employment, Chinese officials and experts were unified in their acknowledgment of the long-standing problem, and they sought advice from their counterparts in Europe and Asia.

Steven Zi, born with the so-called Glass Doll disease, is the creative director of a consulting firm that specializes in investment in social enterprises. (Steven Z/Handout)

The reasons behind China’s tough job market for the disabled, experts say, are varied and in some cases intertwined with the country’s unique political system.

The ruling Communist Party remains deeply distrustful of foreign influence and organizations outside its control, so nongovernmental organizations have a limited presence in the country. Chinese leaders’ fixation on economic growth over the past three decades also has taken precedence over attention to combating discrimination in hiring.

And although some laws offer protection for the disabled, they are poorly enforced.

It wasn’t so long ago that disability activists — after decades of disregard — felt that the tide was finally turning in their favor. It began with the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and the subsequent Paralympic Games also held in China.

With the nation’s international prestige on the line, the government invested heavily in infrastructure for the disabled, to an unprecedented level. It also signed on to the United Nations treaty for rights of the disabled.

As a return on that investment, China dominated the Paralympics award count with the most gold, silver and bronze medals by a large margin. But disability rights have largely languished ever since, many activists say.

The unemployment problem is in many ways indicative of those failures. It stems in part from the fact that the disabled still receive little access to schools, according to statistics from China’s Disabled Persons’ Federation (CDPF), the governmental arm overseeing such issues.

And although much of China’s workforce has flocked to major cities to access its booming economy, many disabled people remain sidelined in China’s rural areas, according to the CDPF

But a big part of the problem is the social stigma that remains.

As part of China’s 2008 Olympics push, its leaders enacted a law requiring companies to fill 1.5 to 2 percent of their jobs with disabled workers. Those who do not meet that quota pay, in theory, into a fund for employment security for the disabled.

But some remain so reluctant to hire the disabled that they choose to pay the fine, said Zhang Wanhong, a developmental law expert at China’s Wuhan University. “They either don’t want to go through the extra trouble of hiring a handicapped person, or worry that those handicapped employees might damage their images,” Zhang said.

To circumvent the law, companies have found loopholes. Some pay for certificates of disability to meet the quota without actually hiring any disabled people. Some hire disabled people on incredibly low salaries, then give them nothing to do.

There are small signs of hope, however, particularly with emerging technologies now making their way to China.

For example, in recent years many disabled people have begun businesses or found work as online store designers on China’s largest commerce Web site, Taobao, the Chinese equivalent of eBay.

Some with disabilities have become industry leaders. Steven Zi is one of them. Zi, who was born with “glass doll” disease, a condition that renders bones brittle, is the creative director of a consulting firm that specializes in investment in social enterprises.

In an interview at a coffee shop a few days before the conference in Beijing, Zi, 31, acknowledged that examples like his are rare. Zi, who uses a wheelchair and is no taller than a toddler because of his disease, said that many disabled people choose to stay at home in the face of employment challenges. For them, he said, the biggest hurdle lies within.

“You have to come out of your shelter,” he said. “That’s the only way you can realize your value.”

But even when you make it out, society sometimes pushes you back in, said one mother of a mentally disabled child attending the conference. She spoke on the condition of anonymity because of a sense of shame.

Despite the modest progress for disability rights in recent years, people inevitably still tease and ridicule her child when they go out, she said.

“The society is still not friendly to us,” she said. “All we want is some respect.”

Gu Jinglu contributed to this report.