May 28

Beijing’s sensitivity to people with disabilities received sensitively

Written by DJ on Wednesday, May 28th, 2008 at 4:44 am
Filed under:culture, media | Tags:, , ,
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I was alerted by the China Hearsay to a story titled “Disabled groups outraged by Beijing snub,” at the Times. It reported the indignation expressed by some to an official guide for volunteers at the Beijing Olympic Games in August and the Paralympics in September.

“I’m stunned,” said Simone Aspis, a parliamentary campaigner at the UK Disabled People’s Council. “It’s not just the language but the perception that in 2008 we are considered a race apart. ”

So what is it in that guide that caused such negative reactions? One example offered in the news report is the following abbreviated quote lifted from the guide:

“Some physically disabled are isolated, unsocial, and introspective. They can be stubborn and controlling . . . defensive and have a strong sense of inferiority.”

[EDITED TO ADD A NOTE] I probably should have noted that the “…” in the quote above spans fully three pages in the guide and the separated parts are placed in completely different sections. Yet, the next quote listed in the report follows almost right after the “They can be stubborn and controlling” part.

Hmm, I must admit such writing, as reported, sounds inartful. (As an aside, I am a bit sensitive to inartful language nowadays.) It’s understandable that some may even find it insulting. Nevertheless, is there some contextual information that was lost in the reporting? I decided to read through the guide and see for myself. And the following is the full paragraph containing the offending quote.

Physically disabled people are often mentally healthy. They show no differences in sensation, reaction, memorization 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 “paralyzed”. It is not acceptable for others to hurt their dignity, so volunteers should make extra efforts to assist with due respect.

The guide goes on to suggest a few basic principles

  • Build a relationship with a positive and friendly attitude
  • Treat them with extra understanding, care and patience
  • Master basic communication methods and skills

and rules for assisting the physically disabled:

  • [While making eye contact,] do not fuss or show unusual curiosity, and never stare at their disfigurement
  • [Avoid] patronizing or condescending attitude [which] will be easily sensed by them
  • Do not use [words such as] “cripple” or “lame”, even if you are just joking
  • If they can do something independently, be sure to let them [if they desire so, to avoid hurting] their independence and dignity
  • Ask for permission before helping

I highly recommend readers to evaluate the full content of this guide to form your own opinions. As for me, my overall impression is that it is a sincere attempt at properly preparing the volunteers to provide the best possible services and experiences to “people with disabilities”. Maybe some of the language choices are inelegant, but the outrage reported in the Times article seems misplaced. Indeed, many of the comments left at the Times are supportive for Beijing in this case.

This phrase “people with disabilities”, by the way, is recommended over “the disabled” by a long Chinese article among the training materials at the Beijing 2008 website. I will provide a full translation if I could squeeze out some time. I found this article while looking for, unsuccessfully, the Chinese version of the guide being discussed in this post because I suspected, similar to the conjecture offered at the China Hearsay, that some of the issues could be due to translations.

I will end this entry with a quote from a commenter’s summary at the China Hearsay:

“Pretty and smooth” advice it may not be. Well-intentioned advice? Unquestionably.

[UPDATE] For a contrasting view, please also check out how The Canberra Times reported on this subject and the way the article was wrapped up, as shown below.

Australian Disability Discrimination Commissioner Graeme Innes did not condemn the guide. He said it had a positive message. ”The overall message I take from [the guide] is people with disabilities need to be treated with respect and in the same way as anyone else would be treated … I might not necessarily have expressed it the way [the guide] did, but the overall message is right.”

[UPDATE] This is a follow up to a comment from reader Ma Bole, in which he recounted two Chinese women’s stories of being denied admissions to universities due to their physical disabilities. I did a bit of search and found an article from the New York Times dated in May of 2001. It’s titled “College Entrance in China: ‘No’ to the Handicapped“, and provides a fair scoped description of such practices in China. I CRINGE  with the realization that it was actually true as late as in 2001. Could some knowledgeable readers inform us if here has been progress made in this particular issue and other ones during the years since. Looking forward, I sincerely hope the compassion and charity so amply and movingly demonstrated throughout China in the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake would translate into meaningful improvements in the attitude and treatment of people of disabilities in China as well. Coming back to the subject of this blog post, I am actually optimistic that such a guide would help bring positive changes because it seeds understanding and sensitivity among the thousands of volunteers, who would in turn take the messages to all sectors of the society.

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17 Responses to “Beijing’s sensitivity to people with disabilities received sensitively”

  1. Opersai Says:

    Stunning! What a different picture I’d get on this had I not read your post.

  2. Matt Says:

    The original “selected” quotes from the paragraph as a whole are definitely misleading. I would agree that overall, though it may not be the most well-worded of guides, it seems well-intentioned.

    There are some battles worth fighting, and many not. I don’t think making a fuss over this (or the Sharon Stone thing for that matter) is probably a terribly good use of oxygen.

  3. Chinaboy Says:

    Shame on Timesonline! The author to write such a biased report is brainless.

  4. MutantJedi Says:

    Yep. Amazing what context (or lack thereof) can do, eh.

  5. 克莱夫 Says:

    Looks like another over-reaction to some poorly translated ideas – words may have been wanting, ideas were perfectly ok.

    Another storm in a teacup.

  6. Wu Kong Says:

    “Some physically disabled . . . defensive and have a strong sense of inferiority.”

    The prognosis is right on for Simone Aspis.

  7. admin Says:

    Reader Mei sent this to me via email.

    Subject: Photo manipulation

    I just came across this article which I thought might be of interest to you, especially in the light of how some western media have been quite manipulative in their reporting.


  8. KL Says:

    partial truth is worse than lies…they are definitely good at it. they are lucky for that there are not so many people want to look for the whole picture, talking about independent thinking huh?

  9. Michelle Says:

    @KL – Who are ‘they’? Your imprecision indicates you are slandering a whole group, which significantly reduces your argument.

    Anyhow, I just read the guide. It’s frank, yes, but it’s a translation and the intending audience will read it in Chinese not English. 克莱夫 has it right.

  10. Ma Bole Says:

    All students who are admitted to Chinese universities must pass a medical physical prior to matriculating. As such, the physically disabled are effectively denied admission. I am a graduate student in the U.S. During the last several years, I’ve met two students from China – both women, both disabled (both had polio as young children – one is in a wheelchair and one uses crutches). One of the two came to the U.S. without a B.A., but was admitted to an M.A. program (in Chinese literature) at the University of Colorado when she explained that it was impossible for her to receive a B.A. in China (she is originally from Guangzhou). Not only was she admitted to the University of Colorado, but the university also installed an elevator in her department’s building – a very expensive project that required the modification of a historic building and the relocation of two of the department’s faculty. The second woman was also originally from Guangzhou but attended university in Hong Kong. She made it clear to me that she would not have been allowed to attend university had she remained in mainland China.

    Just to be clear – while the two women are physically disabled, they are both mentally healthy. The second woman is now tenured faculty at a university in Ohio.

    Poorly informed western journalists notwithstanding, the Chinese bias against the physically disabled is truly shameful.

  11. DJ Says:

    Ma Bole,

    Could you provide a bit more details. I am particularly interested in the time frame these two women had their experience of being blocked from attending universities in China? And which universities did the blocking?

  12. Andy Says:

    There are two sides to it. Alas, people are idiots and do generally need telling stuff along the lines of ‘don’t insult disabled people to their face’. More’s the pity.

    However, the reason for criticising the guide is clear, it does talk about people with disabilities as if their issues are unique to them as a separate group.

    For example – plenty of able-bodied people are introverted and sensitive for a number of reasons. Some people have weight issues or scars and it’s also not appropriate to blurt out about it in front of them.

    In short – we should start with the view that we should treat everyone the same – with respect, regardless. I personally wouldn’t jokingly call someone a ‘cripple’ to their face out of basic decency, and for the same reasons I wouldn’t insult anyone to their face – it’s rude.

    There is no special need to be super-sensitive around people with disabilities, just to not be an a**hole – it;s ‘us’ who have the problem in that respect – not ‘them’ – if you see what I mean.

  13. Buxi Says:


    There used to be tight physical standards for attending university. I don’t recall if these standards have been relaxed… I know Deng Pufang’s pseudo-government disabled organization has been working on it, but it’s a slow process.

    The biggest issue most Chinese are immediately concerned isn’t even equal rights for disabled, but equal rights for those infected by hepatitis. Many, many universities, institutions, and businesses have rules that discriminate against those carrying hepatitis.

    China’s still a poor developing country. Sad to say, still a long way away from the point where building wheelchair ramps becomes a priority.

  14. DJ Says:


    I agree with most of your thoughtful comments except the following one:

    “However, the reason for criticising the guide is clear, it does talk about people with disabilities as if their issues are unique to them as a separate group.”

    I respectfully dispute this perception. First, this guide in no way suggests that “isolated, unsocial, and introspective” people are not also present in the able-bodied ones. Second, and I am being brutally honest in saying this, it would be highly irresponsible for the Beijing 2008 organizers to not educate volunteers about some of the physically disabled visitors requiring extra sensitivities or being difficult to interact with. Failing to do so would only make the experience bad for both sides.

    Now I should clarify the second point I made above. Obviously, plenty of the physically disabled people are optimistic, good natured and full of life. But I don’t see the point in denying some others would have been hit by the disability a bit hard and, excuse me, have issues with it. Frankly if I were to be put into their conditions, it’s doubtful that I would be able to cope with the situation in entirely positive manners.

    So yes the language in the guide should use some refinement or rewriting, which by the way is going to happen according to some subsequent news reports from Beijing. However, the article from The Times deserves to be criticized. The Canberra Times, on the other hand, shows a much more sensible approach in reporting about the guide without trying to stir up some misplaced outrage.

  15. Nimrod Says:

    I see nothing wrong with this guide. It is also timely and useful for the long-term, because there will be many disabled people from the Sichuan earthquake.

  16. MutantJedi Says:

    The CBC just covered this story on the National. I’d love to give a link but they don’t seem to like making themselves that accountable on their website. Maybe that’s normal for TV news. No comments, no permalink… frustrating.

    But not as frustrating as watching Peter Mansbridge deliver how insensitive Beijing is towards people with disabilities. Naturally, the most juicy bits were served up. Of course they cued the indignant athlete with disabilities. But not once a bit of context, not once reading beyond the inflammatory.

  17. Jeff Says:

    I have seen first hand how persons with disabilities and no official connection (guanxi) or person with money to help them are treated in the PRC, and it wasn’t pretty. Just find out what the common Chinese word for a person with a disabilty “Canfei” literally means. I lived as a member of the Chinese society in the PRC and also have a non-visible disability. My most heartbreaking yet eye opening experience was visiting one of the model orphanages in Beijing closed to the public. Many girls – all healthy. Some boys – almost all seriously disabled. Keep the perfect, preferably male, and sell the rest to foreigners in Europe and America.

    And a cute little girl with crooked teeth! Can’t have that! Bad for the country’s image. (Not my words but those of the Beijing Olympic organizers).

    We can all pretend that it is otherwise because of all the money, shining buildings, and well dressed beautiful people, but if you haven’t lived there, don’t speak the language, don’t have access to the things the Taizidang don’t want you to see, and are morally blind, then perhaps there are others more disabled than me.

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