top of page

Keynote Speaker - Zhao Chun Li

Zhao Chun Li (known as Angel) is a young woman with brittle bone disease and dwarfism. She stands at only 36 inches tall but has goals that shoot for the moon. Her life was spent growing up with the pain of broken bones, as she received no medical treatment for her brittle bones that broke often, and the pain of discrimination, as she was teased and taunted by family and friends in her rural China fishing village. Unable to attend school regularly, she was taught by her mom how to read and write through use of her younger brother's textbooks. Her mom was her greatest advocate, believing that Angel was still a very special daughter who had a life worth living.

One of the most challenging days for Angel was a gift in disguise. On July 2, 1998, President Clinton and members of his presidential delegation, visited her rural fishing village on the banks of the Li River. Though she was 16 at that time, Angel had never even seen the Li River, which was only a few hundred feet from her home, as she rarely left her home. During a routine check by the local government in advance of President Clinton's arrival, they deemed Angel too disabled to be seen by a US President, and forced her parents to hide her and lock her upstairs in her room. This could have broken her, but instead it helped her find purpose in life. After the visit of President Clinton, numerous international visitors began coming to the village. Angel, realizing the increase and potential for a new market, began knitting slippers to sell at her parents small shop. She could make a pair of slippers in two weeks and sell it for 25 cents. Though the amount was small, she now felt empowered to be able to contribute something to her family.

One international visitor was a man named Chris Barclay, who saw her potential rather than her broken body. When Chris asked Angel what he could do to help her, she answered, "I want to learn English," thinking that she could again be more of an asset to her family shop with this skill. Amazingly so, she learned English in three months, enough to prepare her for being the first person Chris hired at a new hotel in Yangshuo, Yangshuo Mountain Retreat. Angel has worked at YMR for the last 12 years. Five years ago, she met and fell in love with her husband, Xiao Mo. Together, they have adopted a baby girl who is now four. In the summer of 2011, Dr. Kathy Johnson had the honor of meeting Angel while staying at the YMR. After hearing her story, Dr. Johnson made a commitment to Angel to get her to meet President Clinton and to learn about special education in the US. Dr. Johnson designed an "Educational Learning Internship" for Angel in early 2012. On the last day of the internship, Angel was finally able to meet President Clinton. Since that time, a team of experts have been united to support Chris and Angel's dream of building a school for children with physical disabilities in China. A Commitment to Action in support of this, along with teacher training on inclusion and continued professional development for Angel, has been vetted by the Clinton Global Initiative. To support this work, Angel was invited to attend the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting in September of 2012. At the conclusion of this meeting, President Clinton called her to the stage, escorted by her husband. He stated clearly and effectively, "She could have been a victim of circumstance, but now she is the leading advocate for people with disabilities in China." Angel's dream is to be a voice for those who were not so fortunate in China, those who have not received an education, who are deemed unemployable, who suffer daily from discrimination and hardship. Her gifts are her positive attitude, her spirit of resilience, her fluency in English and her self-determination to be a change agent.

For more information on Angel's story and work, please visit:

International Association of Special Education

bottom of page