Beijing gets it all wrong with volunteer guide
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.