6.13.2008

beijing offends, apologizes, then tries again

When the guide for volunteers at the Beijing Paralympics was published, athletes with disabilities - and their advocates and fans - were shocked. The manual was crammed with outdated, offensive, and downright stupid language, more in keeping with the 19th Century than the 21st.

This story in Australia's Herald Sun says Beijing organizers could use a "swift education in political correctness". I'd say they could use a lesson in humanity, decency and plain old common sense.
Disabled people can be unsocial, stubborn, controlling, and defensive according to an official Beijing Olympics guide.

The Olympic manual for volunteers in Beijing is peppered with patronising comments, noting for example that physically disabled people are "often" mentally healthy.

Volunteers at the Olympics and Paralympics are instructed not to call Paralympians or disabled spectators "crippled" or "lame", even if they are "just joking".

The document, which indicates the Chinese hosts could use a swift education in political correctness, says the optically disabled "seldom show strong emotions".

"Physically disabled people are often mentally healthy," adds the guide.

"They show no differences in sensation, reaction, memorisation and thinking mechanism from other people, but they might have unusual personalities because of disfigurement and disability.

"For example, some physically disabled are isolated, unsocial, and introspective; they usually do not volunteer to contact people.

"They can be stubborn and controlling; they may be sensitive and struggle with trust issues.

"Sometimes they are overly protective of themselves, especially when they are called crippled or paralysed."

Volunteers are instructed never to "stare at their disfigurement".

"A patronising or condescending attitude will be easily sensed by them, even for a brain damaged patient (though he cannot control his limbs, he is able to see and understand like other people).

"Like most, he can read your body language," says the 2008 volunteer guide.

"Show respect when you talk with them.

"Do not use cripple or lame, even if you are just joking.

"Though life has handed many difficulties to them, disabled people are often independent and self-reliant.

"Volunteers should offer assistance on a basis of equality and mutual respect...

"Disabled people can be defensive and have a strong sense of inferiority."

I was so flabbergasted when I read this, I hardly knew where to begin. This column in the (California) Contra Costa Times does a nice job.
Perhaps the authors never met Staff Sgt. Josh Olson, a veteran of the Iraq War who lost his leg to a roadside bomb and now uses his marksmanship skills as a shooter on the U.S. Paralympic team.

If they had, they would never say he has a "strong sense of inferiority."

Maybe they've never come across swimmer Jessica Long, a double below-the-knee amputee with her heart set on a huge medal haul inside Beijing's "Water Cube." If they had, there's no way they would describe her as "isolated, unsocial and introspective."

Surely, they've never gotten to know me, a basketball-player-turned-sportswriter born with mild cerebral palsy. If they had, they certainly wouldn't claim I have an "unusual personality because of (a) disfigurement or disability."

Yet all of those sweeping generalizations still came to the surface inside a training manual given to volunteers of both this summer's Olympic and Paralympic Games. Ignorance, backwards thinking and a poor choice of words are all rolled into a 20-page section titled "Skills for helping the disabled."

On the surface, such material seems well-intended, but those good intentions are almost totally lost upon a single reading. Instead, a helpful tool comes across as a cruel, humorless joke crafted by people who don't know the first thing about discretion or tact.

Exhibit A: "Paralympic athletes and disabled spectators are a special group. They have unique personalities and ways of thinking."

Exhibit B: "Sometimes they are overly protective of themselves. ... Do not use 'crippled' or 'lame,' even if you are just joking."

The language is so offensive, so over the top, Olympic organizers recently requested a rewrite and on Monday offered an apology. Quite frankly, that's exactly what they should've done.

When it comes to human-rights issues, China is already under an intense microscope because of its actions in Tibet and Darfur. To paint such a broad picture of disabled athletes using a purely stereotypical brush certainly doesn't help. And it hardly meshes with the open-arms idea of the Olympic movement.

Zhang Qiuping, director of Beijing's Paralympic Games, told the Associated Press, "Probably it's a cultural difference and mistranslation. ... We've already asked the author to modify the relevant content."

Even if there was something lost in translation, is such a guideline really necessary? Who requires tangible literature to understand the simple notion of decency, tolerance and respect? And if enlightenment truly is required, can't it be obtained on the playing field, where every competitor in Beijing has overcome sizable, deeply personal obstacles just to get there?

Consider Olson. His life was forever changed when a rocket-propelled grenade hit his truck while on night patrol in Northern Iraq in 2003, severing his right leg. Olson spent months at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and was later invited to compete on the U.S. Army marksmanship unit, a break that kick-started his Olympic dream.

"For me, it is an opportunity," said Olson, recipient of the Purple Heart. "I was always taught growing up to never quit."

What about Long? The 2006 Paralympian of the Year, she was born without the long bones in both of her legs. At 18 months, she had surgery to remove her misshapen feet.

When we met in April, Long, now 16, recounted a story of watching the kids in her neighborhood run up a hill with little effort, knowing it would be hard for her to do the same because the surface wasn't flat (she gets around using prosthetics). I instantly began to nod. Having a disability sometimes means routine tasks require great effort, but you dig deep and get the job done.

"I think I got my determination from my disability," said Long, who won nine gold medals at the 2006 world championships and last year beat out Michael Phelps and Candace Parker for the Sullivan Award. "There's nothing I can't do. It's better to (think like that) than staying in my room and being ashamed."

If the volunteers in Beijing really need "skills for helping the disabled," that's the best insight they could ask for.

After a nearly global outcry, Beijing organizers apologized, pulled the offensive manual and said they will publish a new volunteer guide.

Some people have tried to explain this away as a "cultural misunderstanding". I've met Paralympic athletes from many countries, including many developing nations. Most told me about strong national and community support for athletes with disabilities. If official Chinese culture is this behind the times on disability, then it shouldn't be hosting the Paralympics.

12 comments:

James said...

Who requires tangible literature to understand the simple notion of decency, tolerance and respect?

Given that there are people out there who wrote a guide like this, there must be people out there who do require such literature.

L-girl said...

Given that there are people out there who wrote a guide like this, there must be people out there who do require such literature.

Indeed.

Maybe they should use this classic from United Cerebral Palsy.

Nine Rules For How To Treat A Person With A Disability:
1. Like A Person
2. Like A Person
3. Like A Person
4. Like A Person
5. Like A Person
6. Like A Person
7. Like A Person
8. Like A Person
9. Like A Person

Scott M. said...

The article sounds like it was written by a five year old with an advanced vocabulary.

I can see a Beaver (5-year old Scout) learning about disabilities in a meeting. After the meeting, Mom and Dad ask "What did you do today at Beavers?"

"I learned that you shouldn't call disabled people cripples".

Kim_in_TO said...

If official Chinese culture is this behind the times on disability, then it shouldn't be hosting the Paralympics.

I actually think the silver lining in this is that they (the organizers) are having to learn, albeit the hard way. Their intentions are good (well, I hope so, anyway); they are simply ignorant (in the true sense of the word, meaning simply that they lack knowledge). If this weren't happening now, their ignorance concerning disability would likely have gone unchanged for a long time.

China wanted the Olympics so badly, and these days I think that Olympic-host countries care more about showcasing themselves to the world than about sport itself. Maybe that's the way it's always been. But with the Olympics comes the Paralympics, and... oops - guess what? Hosts of the Paralympics don't get away with any gaffes. So there's a rude awakening there, but I think it's a good thing.

L-girl said...

Many Paralympics people agree with you, Kim. I can't seem to see it that way, but I hope you're right.

redsock said...

Disabled people can be unsocial, stubborn, controlling and defensive ...

How about that! I'm disabled!

Where is my cool parking sticker?

L-girl said...

Disabled people can be unsocial, stubborn, controlling and defensive ...

How about that! I'm disabled!


Uh... it doesn't say that unsocial, stubborn people are disabled. It says that disabled ppl are stubborn and defensive. Sorry, no parking for you.

Anyway, you're not controlling. That's me, remember? ;)

impudent strumpet said...

I'm very disappointed that Language Log hasn't reverse-engineered this translation yet! I see room for it to be a careful translation of the strict denotation of words without enough thought to their connotation to native speakers of the target language, and I also see room for it to be a ridiculous source text. Or both. I don't speak a word of Chinese so I have no idea.

Anyway.

I wonder if there's actually anything in the Olympic bid process on whether or not the cadidate city is cool enough about disability to handle the Paralympics respectfully. Because that would be kind of patronizing too (both to the cities and to people with disabilities), but if they aren't cool enough about it then it could be a problem. It's a catch-22.

L-girl said...

I'm very disappointed that Language Log hasn't reverse-engineered this translation yet! I see room for it to be a careful translation of the strict denotation of words without enough thought to their connotation to native speakers of the target language, and I also see room for it to be a ridiculous source text. Or both. I don't speak a word of Chinese so I have no idea.

If you see a reverse-translation, will you let us know?

I didn't know such a thing existed. Very cool!

Skinny Dipper said...

I'd be a racist if I said that the Chinese look very suspicious. White people should use caution when approaching them--especially in Peking. I mean Beijing.

impudent strumpet said...

A reverse translation isn't an Actual Official Thing, but people who are very familiar with translation pitfalls in a particular language combination can generally look at a translation that seems off and work out how the original translator arrived there. (Like this.) This just struck me as the sort of thing Language Log would jump on.

L-girl said...

I'd be a racist if I said that the Chinese look very suspicious. White people should use caution when approaching them

Exactly. Same thing.

A reverse translation isn't an Actual Official Thing, but people who are very familiar with translation pitfalls in a particular language combination can generally look at a translation that seems off and work out how the original translator arrived there. (Like this.)

Wow, very interesting.

This just struck me as the sort of thing Language Log would jump on.

Can you suggest it?