The Bethel Diaries is on ongoing series about volunteering in Beijing. For the first installment, click here.
It’s crunch time at Bethel. Not only did Chi Fan for Charity successfully wrap up in November with over RMB 550,000 raised for Bethel and Educating Girls of Rural China (EGRC), but we also participated in several holiday bazaars and held a series of rotating art shows this month with 100 paintings by Bethel children up for auction.
Currently, I’m in the middle of compiling Bethel’s annual report for release in January 2016. As a life-long writer, I’ve always believed that words matter. However, I’m realizing that careful word choice and selective editing may be especially important in a non-profit context.
Most NGOs and non-profit organizations are keen to control their messaging and the way they are presented in the media. There are sound reasons for this. When an organization’s mission is diluted or misunderstood by others, not only can that make it harder for them to carry out their mandate, but it can also threaten fundraising and sponsorship efforts.
The language used by an organization also reflects it values. For example, early on at Bethel I learned the difference between "a child who is blind or visually-impaired (with a focus on children without parents)" versus "a blind or visually-impaired orphan."
First off, "blind" isn’t the same thing as "visually-impaired." A visually-impaired (VI) person has low vision (defined by the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization as vision between 20/70 and 20/400 with the best possible correction) while a blind person has visual acuity worse than 20/400 with the best possible correction.
Second, Anna from Bethel says they always try to use "people first language" by highlighting the children’s humanity and abilities in all communications rather than their disabilities.
In the example above – "a child who is blind or visually-impaired (with a focus on children without parents)" versus "a blind or visually-impaired orphan" – the first construction doesn’t dwell on the children’s status as orphans.
Granted, it’s wordier but also offers a more accurate description of Bethel’s projects, which include outreach efforts with local families (in other words, children who are not orphans).
As an editor, it’s difficult to resist the urge to cut down on wordiness. However, in a non-profit context anything we leave off the page has the potential to distort or undervalue the organization’s mission. I’ve never so carefully considered the implications of using this word versus that word or highlighting one achievement over another.
In short, being a volunteer at Bethel has enabled me to view writing – an old and familiar friend – in new and unexpected ways. More than ever, I’m convinced that words matter.
Tips of the Day
- When you meet a visually-impaired person, don’t assume they need help. Ask if you can offer assistance. Speak face to face with the person. If they consent to your assistance, wait until they grab your arm by the elbow; don’t grab them first.
- When speaking to people who are visually-impaired, don’t be scared to say expressions like "see you later" or "see you tomorrow." You can use the same words you would normally use in conversation.
- Use concrete words and descriptions. Don’t say "this thing" or "that thing."
Sijia Chen is a contributing editor at beijingkids and a freelance writer who has covered travel, tech, culture, parenting, and the environment. Her work has appeared in Travel + Leisure, The Independent, the Beijinger, Midnight Poutine, and more. Follow her on Twitter at @sijiawrites or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo: Taro Taylor (Flickr)