Which is probably why comedian and Conan co-host Andy Richter didn't hesitate to make this joke earlier tonight:
RE: the-baseball-cap-that-fits-over-the-tops-of-the-ears trend: is microcephaly now considered sexy?
But Richter has been one of the more intelligent and on-the-fly funny personalities on television for a long time. And there's something about this joke that seems especially cruel. The joke doesn't work (inasmuch as it works at all) unless you know about microcephaly. The joke is that persons with microcephaly have small heads. Get it? And to make this joke, Andy Richter had to be completely aware of what microcephaly is.
Of all the problems with this joke, awareness isn't one of them.
A few harsh points, then. When Richter asks if microcephaly is now considered sexy, he's kidding. If he wasn't kidding, however, the answer would be mostly no. It's not sexy because the word "sexy" is probably only really appropriate when applied to adults. Persons born with more pronounced microcephaly don't generally make it very far into adulthood. Many of them die young, buried by their heartsick parents.
I had the opportunity to meet with a great many of these parents and their amazing children a few summers ago at what is now called the Microcephaly, Lissencephaly and Polymicrogyria Convention, a huge labor of love presented by the Foundation for Children with Microcephaly. I got to know some of the most amazing people in the world at that conference; it literally changed my life.
And I learned to appreciate just how closely their world intersected with mine. At this conference, kids were examined by some of the top experts in the world, including Dr. William Dobyns, the doctor who diagnosed Schuyler's polymicrogyria. (The first thing he did when he met Schuyler in 2005 was measure her head to rule out microcephaly.) At the closing lecture, Dr. Dobyns surprised me by reporting that aside from microcephaly, the most common diagnosis he had given out at the conference was polymicrogyria.
Polymicrogyria. Microcephally. Lissencephaly. Not many advocacy groups for these monsters. No telethons or puzzle pieces or a month for awareness. No inspiring actors in popular tv shows. No movies about a Very Special Child. And no hesitation by a popular and successful tv comedian to make a joke about them, a joke that his clever fans might have to google to even understand and laugh about.
If Schuyler's disability were one that showed on her face, if she were shaped differently because of the little monster in her brain, then perhaps a famous comedian could make a joke about her, too. Perhaps I should feel lucky. Lucky that Schuyler can hide in plain sight, lucky that her appearance doesn't bring out the worst in others, lucky that she might just get to grow up without going to a movie or watching tv and seeing herself as the punchline to a joke.
But I don't feel lucky. I feel sad, mostly for the friends I made at that conference three years ago. Some of those friends have probably buried their children by now. Those who haven't probably don't have the time or the energy to be outraged at Andy Richter's monstrous, stupid joke. I'm sad for all their beautiful children, and for all the kids out there whose disability marks them in a way that attracts pointing jackass fingers. I'm sad for all the ones who can't understand the jokes that are being made, or are even aware that they are being mocked at all. That makes it worse in my eyes, not better.
Once again, I feel like the world really isn't ready to make space for our kids or our families. There's a table, and that table is set for the empowered, and it's even set for the disenfranchised.
But only if you're human. Only if you're better than a punchline.
About an hour ago, Andy Richter removed the offending tweet. It it's place, he made the following statement:
I offended a lot of people yesterday with a tweet using the word "microcephaly". It was not my intention to mock disability. I normally am not bothered by offending people, but in this case, I am. I make jokes, and this was one I shouldn't have made. I apologize for my insensitivity in this instance.
I can't speak for anyone else, but I would like to thank Andy Richter for this gesture. We all have a lot of growing to do, myself as much as anyone.