Empowering the Chinese Disabled Poor, pt. 2

It took the 27 disabled borrowers most of the morning to share their stories with the rest of the participants of the Disability Workshop.  In the afternoon, the stage was handed over to the visitors from the Enable Disability Study Institute, who ran a series of seminars about self-empowerment and confidence building.  Zhang Wei 张薇, the director of the institute, presented the audience with a number of common every day scenarios in which they could encounter discrimination and discussed potential strategies for dealing with it.

Zhang Wei explains different labels for the disabled in Chinese

The seminar also included a discussion about labels for disabled individuals in Chinese which, for someone who has sacrificed so many hours of his life to studying this language, was really fascinating. As Mr. Zhang explained, since the founding of the China Disabled Person’s Federation in the early 1980’s, the organization has worked to promote the use of more respectful language in reference to disabled persons in common speech.The term most commonly used in colloquial speech, canji 残疾, probably translates best to the English word “crippled.”  However, the term is misleading, because the second character, ji 疾, implies disease or illness (as in jibing疾病, which means “sickness”).  “Are you sick?” Mr. Zhang asked the audience, “do you need to go to the hospital or take medicine for your condition?”  If not, then why would you use the term to refer to yourself?”  Another term, canfei残废, is considered by the organization to be even more offensive, because the second character, fei 废, also implies “useless” (as in feiwu废物, which means “waste”).  “This term comes from the idea that, if a person is too disabled to work, then they have no value to society.  But do we really believe that?  Is the whole value of a person’s life based on their ability to work?” As a result of their connotations, the Disabled Person’s Federation has gotten both terms removed from official language.  The organization prefers the term canzhang残障, which more closely translates to “disabled.”  However, the other two terms are still used quite commonly in daily speech.

While a term for “political correctness” (政治正确) does exist in Chinese, “the term is not used or widely understood throughout China,” Mr. Zhang explained to me. I had only heard the term referenced once before in China, by a Peking University professor giving a class about American culture and politics.  She explained the movement as a particularity of contemporary American politics—and while I have since asked many of my Chinese friends about the term, it is not widely known.  It was fascinating to see that, for at last some sectors of society, there is a small group of organizations working to bring the concept to China.

The over-arching theme of the afternoon was one of building confidence and a sense of self-reliance among the borrowers.  ARDY takes very seriously the importance of inspiring optimism in its borrowers.  Convincing Yilong’s peasants that they are capable of changing their own conditions can often be as crucial an accomplishment—and as great of a challenge—as the actual distribution of microloans.

It was clear from the stories of the borrowers the role that their own attitudes and self-confidence were crucial to their success.  Each of the peasants present had only achieved the economic and social advancement they had by combining the loan money with years of hard work.  “In the end, we didn’t really give them anything,” Mrs. Gao said to me when we discussed the workshop later, “we just gave them a starting point.  All of their self-improvement, all of the progress that they made, was the direct result of their own effort.”

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