China Revamps Paralympics Guidebook

China just revamped its handbook for volunteers at the Paralympics. U.S. disability rights activist Helen McCabe weighs in on the revised wording and the role of the Paralympic Games in the disability community.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MIKE PESCA, host:

The U.S. Olympic trials are well underway. Just about two weeks after the Beijing Games, that city will play host to the 2008 Paralympics Games. You may be familiar with one of the sports, wheelchair rugby, as seen in the movie "Murderball." There are 20 sports in total. It's a competition for athletes with disabilities. In the news now, because the first ever Paralympics Games torch relay was just cancelled. Chinese officials felt they had enough of a headache with just one torch relay.

But the Paralympics were also in the headlines for another kind of controversy, the wording in a manual written to teach volunteers how to interact with disabled athletes. Advocacy groups spoke out, and the Beijing organizing committee decided to recall the booklet and rewrite it. Joining us now is a woman who says she'd like to proofread the revised manual for Paralympic volunteers. Helen McCabe is an assistant professor of education at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York. Hello, Helen.

Dr. HELEN MCCABE (Education, Hobart and William Smith Colleges): Hi, how are you?

PESCA: I'm well. I'm well. So we're clear, the Paralympics occur in the same city as the Olympics. Are they modeled after the Olympics? How does it work?

Dr. MCCABE: Yeah, I think, absolutely, the Paralympics are. They're for athletes, elite athletes, very competitive athletes, who just happen to have some form of physical disability.

PESCA: The Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games, in writing about their offensive Paralympic manual or how to deal with people with disabilities manual, did apologize. They say, you know, we meant no harm. But what do you think was behind the language in the manual in the first place?

Dr. MCCABE: I think that in Chinese culture, that type of language is acceptable and accepted, that's the way people view people with disabilities. I mean unfortunately, I think that's true.

PESCA: So, here are some of the things that to our Western ears at least, they're offensive.

Dr. MCCABE: Mm-hm.

PESCA: Here, I'll read a couple lines. Physically-disabled people show no differences in sensation, reaction, memorization and thinking mechanisms from other people, but they might have unusual personalities, because of disfigurement and disability. And it goes on to say, for example, some physically disabled are isolated, unsocial and introspective. They do not volunteer to contact people. They can be stubborn and controlling. They may be sensitive and struggle with trust issues.

You know, clearly no one writing in this day and age to talk to volunteers if the games were held in New York, or Chicago, or L.A. would ever say that, but do you give the Chinese a pass because maybe they're dealing with a readership that just doesn't know how to deal with disabled people?

Dr. MCCABE: Maybe for the first part, but not the second part. I mean, just because the readers don't know how to deal with people with disabilities, it's sort of incorrect to have this huge generalization. I mean, some of the language in there was, you know, show respect when you talk with people with disabilities. That's fine. But when you're generalizing and saying, because they have a physical disability, so their personality is strange, it's just wrong.

PESCA: Is that sort of language the stuff that you would find a 100 or 150 years ago in Western culture about dealing with people with disabilities?

Dr. MCCABE: Or 50 years ago, sure.

PESCA: Fifty, even 50?

Dr. MCCABE: Sure. Yeah.

PESCA: So maybe - I mean, maybe it's just a question of not everyone is on the same page, and as up-to-date with all these issues?

Dr. MCCABE: I think that's true, but this is an international event. I mean, as I said, you know, when I read it, I thought, who wrote this? And who proofread it? There are people available, including myself, who could have read it, who speak Chinese, who speak English, who know the field. So I feel like back 50 years ago or 100 years ago in the West, we didn't have the kind of resources that China has today. So in that respect, I feel like they could have reached out.

PESCA: And if you want to host a modern Olympiad, there are certain things that you just have to do.

Dr. MCCABE: Right.

PESCA: Yeah. In the United States, we have the Americans with Disabilities Act. You know, there have to be ramps. There have be reasonable accommodation made in the workplace.

Dr. MCCABE: Right.

PESCA: Is there anything similar in China?

Dr. MCCABE: In 19 - it was either 1990 or 1991, China passed the law on the protection of persons with disabilities, and it is a comprehensive law, just like in the United States, so it includes education, employment, rehabilitation, but the huge difference is that there's no requirement that it be implemented.

PESCA: When you host an Olympics, you host a Paralympics. That's how it's worked for many years now.

Dr. MCCABE: Mm-hm.

PESCA: Did you get the sense that this was like an afterthought to the Chinese?

Dr. MCCABE: Last fall was the Special Olympics, which is very different from the Paralympics.

PESCA: Yeah.

Dr. MCCABE: Right. So the Special Olympics is more for people with cognitive disabilities. It's about participation and it's about, you know, doing your best, and that's very different from the Paralympics, which is truly physically fit, excellent athletes, who happen to have a physical disability. And I know there's a little concern that China wouldn't understand what the difference was, but now that the Paralympics is coming closer, it seems that that's becoming more, you know, more important to them.

PESCA: So going back to the lines in the manual, where they originally wrote that people with disabilities might have unusual personalities, because of disfigurement and disability.

Dr. MCCABE: Mm-hm.

PESCA: Perhaps someone listening would say, well, it's impolitic, but you're just trying to communicate with your audience, like the Chinese workers who maybe have no knowledge of this at all. You have told me that you reject that argument. How would you change it so that you could communicate to your audience, but also not communicate via a stigma?

Dr. MCCABE: You could say, remember, every person from every culture has - is different and our personalities are formed through our histories, and so when you get to know people from other countries, whether they have a disability or not, remember that they are coming from a different perspective than you are.

PESCA: Mm-hm. What's the biggest frustration for the Paralympian? Going to China? Going anywhere?

Dr. MCCABE: One is, especially, going to China, you know, how accessible is society going to be? I mean, China is trying to sort of improve Beijing, and make it physically accessible. I know right now they have one hotel set to be the home, you know, the home base of the Paralympics, and so I think all of the athletes are going to be staying there. But that's one hotel. So I'm not sure how accessible the others are going to be.

And the other one, I think the biggest frustration, I would guess, just given my own research background, is expectations. You know, you have a disability, but that doesn't mean that you have less abilities than everybody else. You just happen to have something physically different about you, and so for people to say, oh, God, good job, good for you, just because you have a disability, you know, people with disabilities want you to have high expectations just like any person, you know? Everybody is the same.

PESCA: Yeah. Especially if you're going for the gold.

Dr. MCCABE: Exactly.

PESCA: Helen McCabe is assistant professor of education at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York. She and her sister Karen are founders of the nonprofit Five Project, which works with people with disabilities in China. Thank you very much, Helen.

Dr. MCCABE: Thank you.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.