Showing posts with label just a word. Show all posts
Showing posts with label just a word. Show all posts

February 3, 2014

You're worth what you're worth.

Today at Support for Special Needs:
My fears for that future, and they are legion, have little to do with what Schuyler will be able to do, or what her worth to the world might be in measurable values. My fear is rooted squarely in those who hold her future success and those of her friends in their hands, and whether or not they truly understand the value of what that means.

January 6, 2014

One Resolution

Today at Support for Special Needs:
What I’m doing by not saying anything is a form of silent consent. I let a little piece of verbal poison go out into the world because I don’t want to have an awkward conversation with a stranger, or worse, with a friend or family member. I hold myself up as some kind of New & Improved Rob because I don’t say it anymore, but every time it goes past me unremarked upon, all I’m really doing is allowing someone else to say it for me. I feel like that might be a little worse.

March 6, 2013

On the Word

As a part of today's observation of "Spread the Word to End the Word", sponsored by the Special Olympics and Best Buddies, I've written a new post over at the 504. Just revisiting some thoughts on "The R Word", from a recent speech:
In recent years, I've found myself getting caught up in exactly how unprepared the world really is for our kids, and how ugly the result can be. It's easy to forget. It's easy to become so insulated in our everyday lives as parents and so infatuated with our own beautiful children that we forget that to much of the outside world, these kids are simply perceived as being... less.

January 14, 2013

Sandcastles

Today on Support for Special Needs, I discuss the societal battles that those of us in the disability community fight over and over, even the ones we know we'll never win, as if we're building and rebuilding sandcastles that we know will be destroyed by the tide every night.

I'm not going to lie. It gets old.


October 23, 2012

Just a Word: Election Edition

It's election season in the United States. This is a very special time for the people of this country, an opportunity to come together to soberly and with much reflection choose the fellow citizens in whom we trust to lead our nation into an uncertain future.

It's a time to explore our differences, of course, but also to celebrate the process of peaceful transition, of the theory of democracy made real. In this season, it is possible to experience the essence of American citizenship and the dignity and majesty of our system of government, based as it is on the strength and goodness of community.

In that spirit of civil discourse, I give you the post-debate words of author, pundit and self-proclaimed patriot Ann Coulter.



Having gotten everyone's attention, she later doubled down. (Beautifully, she did so as a way of calling out the president for insensitivity.)



Charming.

Look. I've written about this in the past, about how some people use this word because they are ignorant, and others because it's good for an easy laugh. And I have never ever said that no one has the right to use it. I've never advocated banning a word, even if that was even possible. In a way, I'd almost rather prefer that the people who want to use it actually do so. It's a quick identifier, a kind of vocabulary profiling, a little red flag that tells me a lot about the person before I invest a great deal of time taking them seriously.

Also, as I've made clear before, I have been extremely guilty of using that word in the past. I didn't necessarily get smarter since then, but through my own life experience and through the extraordinary people I've met as a result of advocating for Schuyler, I think I might have become a little wiser. Certainly more sensitive, although like most people, I have a long way to go. Still, I freely acknowledge that when it comes to speaking out against using the "R word", I am very much Nixon going to China.

Where Ann Coulter is concerned, the first thing we must do is take ignorance off the table. As noted in a post on Sprocket Ink, Coulter graduated cum laude from Cornell with a B.A. in history, and received her J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School, where she edited the Michigan Law Review.

When she uses this word to insult the president and liberals, Ann Coulter is making a choice. It's a very calculated choice, too. She knows that people will be upset by her language, but more importantly, she knows exactly WHO will be upset. When contacted about her use of the so-called "R word" in her tweet yesterday, Coulter replied, "The only people who will be offended are too retarded to understand it."

Ann Coulter knows who will be upset, and she knows who will be thrilled. I've worked in a book store; I have a pretty good idea of the people who buy her books. Either way, she's playing to her audience.

And like every other public figure who has used this term loudly and proudly, Ann Coulter has spared not a single thought for those whom she hurts. People like my daughter aren't on her scope. People like my family don't matter. Human beings with developmental disabilities have so very little political power, and fight so hard for what scraps they have. Are they even human beings at all? Don't ask Ann Coulter.

For those with developmental disabilities who can stand up for themselves, and for those of us who care for and love and most of all strive to protect and build a better world for those whom the likes of Ann Coulter would reduce to a vicious punchline, the fight falls at our feet. Not to stop people like Coulter from expressing their opinions. Not to silence them. As I said, if anything, I prefer that they stand in the light when they make these statements. Given the choice of knowing that there are roaches skittering around my kitchen at night (note: I'm being metaphorical; we don't have roaches, knock on wood) or turning on the light, I'll reach for the light every time. Even if some of the roaches, like Coulter, crave that light.

If Liberals excuse her remarks because we think she's a buffoon who is clearly desperate for attention, we become complicit. If Conservatives distance themselves from her and say "Well, she doesn't speak for me, so I have no duty to rebuke her," they are also complicit, because it's not a political issue. It might be a little different if she were abusing communities with any power or any privilege, groups that could push back.

But Coulter knows that the disability community is a safe target. No, scratch that. Not even a target. Just a punchline. A target would imply that there was some political gain to be had in hurting people like my daughter, like her friends and her family and her community.

As it is, there's not even that. They're just retards, right?

Right?

As citizens of the world and children of God, we have a choice to make, and it needs to be every bit as deliberate and considered as Coulter's choice to use that word the way she does. We have a choice to make every time we read a comment like hers made by a public figure, of course. Whether it's a notable Republican like Ann Coulter or a Democrat like Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, we have to hold them accountable.

But more than that, we have a choice to make every time we hear a stranger at the mall use it, or a friend, a family member or a coworker. It is in those moments most of all that we make choices, sometimes hard ones. When we choose silence, when we choose not to make waves or risk looking like humorless scolds, we make a choice. We choose the side of the Ann Coulters of the world.

We choose the dark. When we're silent in opposition, we choose the dark, and we do so knowing perfectly well that we have a flashlight in our pocket, and we choose not to use it.

I remember a line from that famous Howard Beale scene from Network:

"All I know is that first you've got to get mad. You've got to say, 'I'm a human being, God damn it! My life has value!'"

I guess what I'm trying to say is yeah, I'm as mad as hell. And I'm not going to take this anymore. And neither should you.

August 8, 2012

Just a Word: From the Mouths of our Public Servants Edition


I didn't want to write about this today. I didn't want to write about it at all, actually, but certainly not today. I've got another post coming up tomorrow that I most certainly do not want parked next to this delightful topic. And honestly, I'm tired of talking about it, this thing that doesn't seem to ever change, or ever get better.

But then, I'm not the person who thought it would be funny to use kids like mine as the punchline to a horrible joke, all in service of scoring political points and mocking the President of the United States.

Allegheny, PA County GOP chair Jim Roddey, at the election night party for state Rep. Randy Vulakovich, R-Shaler:

"There was a disappointment tonight. I was very embarrassed. I was in this parking lot and there was a man looking for a space to park, and I found a space for him. And I felt badly -- he looked like he was sort of in distress. And I said, 'Sir, here's a place.' And he said, 'That's a handicapped space.' I said, 'Oh I'm so sorry, I saw that Obama sticker and I thought you were mentally retarded."

Well. There you go.

(I'll no doubt be able to add an update later, with a weaselly statement from Mr. Roddey's spokesperson expressing regret or possibly outrage that his words were taken out of context by the liberal media, and how he does love the little retards of the world so very much. I'll be sure to share it when it comes.)

This isn't about politics; it's just as reprehensible when the sentiment comes out of the mouths of people whose politics align more closely with my own. And this time, it isn't about a slip of the tongue, a casual careless remark, or a moment of poor judgment.

This was a joke. A premeditated joke, one that Jim Roddey planned to make. For all I know, it was written down on a little blue notecard for him. It's even possible that it was written for him, by one of his staff. Jim Roddey stood up, he took the microphone, and he very deliberately and unhesitatingly made a joke, one that I like to think that just about any decent human being would find repulsive.

But that's perhaps the worst part.

From the article: "The crowd hollered and clapped, and then Roddey went into the the usual thanks at political events for grassroots supporters of the winning candidate."

Not one person stood up and called him out on it. Not one person felt compelled to be a voice for basic humanity, for a bare minimal level of human decency. Gathered in a mob, the crowd roared its approval. It cheered and it laughed, and it demonstrated once again that those of us who love and advocate for friends and family with developmental disabilities have a lot of work to do.

And all our work? It might just be for nothing.

I wonder if Jim Roddey and his audience would have laughed if my child had been standing there in front of them. Or Sarah Palin's.

Or yours.

-----

INEVITABLE UPDATE, 8/8: Jim Roddey has apologized for his joke.
"I have a long record of supporting people with disabilities and should have remembered that before I spoke. My remarks were inappropriate and I apologize."
See? It's not that he doesn't care about people with developmental disabilities. It's simply that he forgot that he cares. Silly!

Apparently the members of the Allegheny County GOP forgot not to laugh, too.

Jim Roddey, Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County GOP Chair and swell guy.

info@rcac.net  Telephone: 412-458-0068
(Mr. Roddey's phone: 412-512-6747)
The Republican Committee of Allegheny County
100 Fleet Street, Suite 205
Pittsburgh, PA 15220

July 9, 2012

Running on Empty

On Facebook the other day, I made a statement in regards to the rapper 50 Cent and his ugly Tweets in which he used autism and special education as cheap insults.

I said:
"I love a good outrage as much as anyone, but honestly? If I were required by law to give two shits about what 50 Cent thinks, I'd have to borrow them both."
A few people took me to task for that, and they weren't wrong to do so. While I haven't exactly changed my position on this concerning the amount of outrage I have been able to muster about 50 Cent and his opinion about anything at all, I do try to at least address my lack of outrage and what that might mean about me at the moment.

You can go read about it on today's Support for Special Needs.

May 12, 2012

An Undiscovered Country

In the past year or so, Schuyler has made a discovery. It's one I've always known she would make, and always anticipated with a heavy heart. Inevitable, perhaps, for any person with an essentially good heart and a love for the world that it has neither earned nor returned.

Schuyler is learning how to be sad.

She learned in middle school that being surrounded by people doesn't mean you can't be lonely. She learned that people will look at a kid like her and make assumptions that are extremely unkind, assumptions that she can't easily dispel. She learned that her brain can betray her, can leave her confused and dispirited, and that as she grows older, that betrayal only grows worse. The last few times that she's suffered partial complex seizures have left her crying. She had one last night in the middle of dinner with friends that left her sobbing, for no reason she could identify. "I can't stop crying," she kept saying to me, and the confusion in her voice was, for me, perhaps the most heartbreaking of the many bad things about her fucking monster.

Schuyler is coming to realizations about this grand, rough world that she probably already knew, but in the last year or so, she's taken those lessons to heart.

Today I accompanied Schuyler to her middle school band's annual trip to a local water park. I was attending as a parent chaperone, doing things like checking names as the kids got on the bus and handing out wristbands and such, but when the rest of the chaperones' jobs were done and the kids were in the park, my real duty began. The band director, a good and decent person who really does real damage to the crappy reputation of conductors everywhere (I kid, I kid...), recognizes our daughter's challenges, and she works harder than we have any right to expect in order to make Schuyler's band experience a good one. She put me on the chaperone list, I believe, so that I could keep an eye on Schuyler.

Schuyler had a good start to the day as she and a friend gravitated to each other immediately. But I knew we might be in trouble when I saw the girl later with someone else. When Schuyler found me, she was frowning.

"She found another friend," she said. I tried to explain that just because her friend was playing with someone else didn't mean anything bad, and that sometimes people just change up their buddies from time to time, but she wasn't convinced. I honestly had no idea what had happened, but I know Schuyler. She's an amazing person, but she can smother her friends. It's always been a problem and it will continue to be one, until she finds her person, the one who only wants more of her, not less. And that girl or boy will be her soulmate and her forever person, and that will be that.

We sat down for lunch, and were having a pretty good time. Schuyler was fighting a losing battle with a hot dog that she had inadvertently smothered in a toxic strata of mustard, but she was soldiering on. And that's when we heard it, from the table next to ours. A girl, laughing and yelling at her friend.

"You are a retard!"

Schuyler stopped. Her face froze, and she turned to look at the kids. They were oblivious; I don't even think they were from her school. They carried on, not knowing what they had just done, which I suppose is true of the majority of people who casually throw that word around. But I knew. I could see it on Schuyler's face. She turned back to her lunch, her face now a careful mask.

"Are you okay?" I asked. There was no need to acknowledge what had been said.

"I'm not a retard," she said quietly. "That's a mean word."

I tried to explain that the girl wasn't talking about her at all, but Schuyler was absolutely convinced that she was. Beyond that, I explained, not for the first or I suspect the last time, that people who use that word don't have the first clue about who Schuyler is or what she's capable of. That word has nothing to do with her, I said, and people who use it only make themselves smaller, not her. Schuyler sat quietly, not even looking at me when I snapped a photo of her, trying to cheer her up. She listened, but she didn't hear. She'd already heard what she needed to, and not from me, but from one of her peers.

Finally she gave me a lingering hug and said something that I can tell you for a fact that she has never said to me in her young life, yet something that I've said a hundred times to just about any person who has ever loved me, ever. I suppose it was just a matter of time.

"I want to go walk around by myself," she said. "Okay?"

"Okay," I said. And she did, for almost an hour. She was never alone, because I followed her from a distance, watching. Maybe that was the wrong thing to do, but it didn't feel wrong. I know it wasn't the wrong thing to do. Sometimes the hardest part of being a father is when there's absolutely nothing I can do to make it better. Just follow, and let her sadness resonate with my own.

She walked with her hood pulled up, her hands in her pockets, her face cast down, moving sadly through the park and the world like a ghost.

"...her little heart it could explode."

April 11, 2012

Andy Richter Saddens the Universe

When we talk about the dehumanization of people with disabilities, there's a general dismay that receives a certain amount of lip service, but there's a sad reality, too. Not every slur against every disability receives the same amount of outrage. Not every lobby inspires the same level of hesitation from those who might be considering making a joke in a film or on television or wherever. Some of our tribes are very, very small. The number of fists we can shake at the sky is limited.

Which is probably why comedian and Conan co-host Andy Richter didn't hesitate to make this joke earlier tonight:

@Andy_Richter
RE: the-baseball-cap-that-fits-over-the-tops-of-the-ears trend: is microcephaly now considered sexy?

There are a few reasons this bothers me, some of them very personal. But let's get this out of the way first: Andy Richter is a smart and funny guy. And that's part of the problem here. When someone like Tracy Morgan makes some joke about "retarded people", we are outraged for sure. But on some level, we might also look at both the joke and the comedian and say, "Well, honestly, that's pretty dumb."

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.



UPDATE, 11:30am

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.

March 6, 2012

Spread it. End it. That's all.

March 7th is the annual "Spread the Word to End the Word" observance day. The word, of course, is "retard", and if you're still using it, tomorrow would be an excellent day to at least think about why it is you've been sticking to your retard guns, so to speak.

You'll note that I don't say "you should stop using that word". That's because I can't tell you whether or not you should stop. I can't choose your vocabulary for you any more than anyone else can, and I don't think I have the right to try.

But I hope you'll think about it.

To that end, I hope you'll take a moment to go read the thing I wrote about this topic last May, called "Just a word". And as usual, someone else says it better than I do:

September 16, 2011

Seeds

Every day, I believe our society is moving towards recognition of the fact that making fun of people with developmental disabilities just isn't funny. I believe that, or perhaps I just want to believe it so much that I convince myself of it. But I also believe that movement is mostly incremental, and not without reverse steps.

The story of Gemma Hayter reminds us that the slowness of our developing humanity has a terrible price.

Gemma Hayter was a 27-year-old woman with a developmental disability, living independently in Britain, who was brutally tortured before being left to die naked and alone on a railway embankment. The details of her treatment are horrific enough that I won't repeat them here, except for one point that I think is too important not to share: she believed that the people who committed the atrocities against her were her friends.

Following the sentencing of her convicted killers, Hayter's family released a statement, and one line jumped out at me in particular: "Our Gemma was a very loving and vulnerable woman who trusted everyone, and her trusting nature and vulnerability led to her death on 9 August last year."

That could describe Schuyler. It could describe a great many of our loved ones, children and adults alike.

Gemma Hayter's case is a stark reminder that the seeds of societal disregard for persons with developmental disabilities ultimately manifest in abuse, in violence and in death and heartbreak and deep sorrow. If you choose to look, to really see, you can follow the line from jokes about "retards" in film and television and the stages of comedy clubs to the young people repeating them on the schoolyards, and you can watch those kids grow into young adults and observe them as they live their lives without empathy or compassion for those who have never had value or humanity in their eyes. Small steps, leading inexorably to a moment where killing a living, thinking, feeling human being might be difficult enough to give them pause, but doing harm to a worthless retard, just for laughs? What's wrong with that? How is the world diminished by a loss like that?

It's not a butterfly-flapping-its-wings-in-China kind of mysterious connection. It's real, and there is measurable responsibility to be faced for the harm that springs from such small seeds.



As I said, I do feel like there are incremental steps being taken towards a larger good. Sometimes you have to look hard to see them. Sometimes I think I see them when they're not there. Overbelieving, perhaps, or overwanting.

I occasionally listen to a podcast called WTF, hosted by comedian Marc Maron. Maron can be a really sharp and funny comic, and he's done some fantastic interviews with others in his industry. I think I was vaguely aware that he'd been something of an apologist for comedians who had gotten in hot water for using words like "retarded" in their work, but I'd never heard him actually do so himself. That is very much a distinction of questionable significance, I admit.

Recently, Maron interviewed a comic named Anthony Jeselnik. Jeselnik's comedy works for a very specific crowd, I suspect. He's a joke-teller. He delivers short, one or two line jokes, and they are generally both absurd and edgy, crossing as many lines as he can find to cross. Imagine the love child of Stephen Wright and, I don't know, Satan. Jeselnik's humor isn't for everyone; I can't imagine very many people sitting through an entire set of his without a thinking "Oh, wow, I don't know about that" at least once or twice. To be honest, while I recognize how excellent Jeselnik is at his craft, I don't care for some of his material myself, partly because I think he's planting the kinds of seeds that I spoke of earlier. I will say, however, that unlike someone like Tracy Morgan, Anthony Jeselnik isn't trying to have it both ways. He's not trying to offend without consequence while at the same time depending on work in bland network tv comedy or family-friendly film. If you make the effort to go see Anthony Jeselnik in a club or listen to his material on tv, you've got a pretty good idea of what you're going to get. Being offended at one of his shows is a little like going to a Ku Klux Klan rally and saying, "Wow, these guys are kind of racist."

In Maron's interview with Jeselnik, there was a lot of discussion of "How far is too far?". Perhaps inevitably, the topic turned to jokes about people with developmental disabilities, and again, Jeselnik declares the topic fair game. But here it's Maron who discusses his own material on the subject, material that I hadn't heard before. It's hard to listen to, even as he is firmly convinced that his humor is inoffensive.

Marc Maron:
"I used to tell this story, and I just stopped telling it because there's nothing right about it... I genuinely said to the audience that when you see a mentally disabled person, it's hard not to be filled with joy because they're so childlike and they experience joy so immediately that when they're having a good time, you literally feel elated because of their sort of unfiltered ability to experience joy. So I don't think we should be arguing about the word 'retarded' or about 'mentally challenged' or 'developmentally disabled'. I think they should be called 'God's clowns'... And I meant 'God's clowns' in a nice way. I didn't mean like God was making a fool out of them. They're there spreading joy in this way. It was really well-intended."

So yeah. As much as Maron insists that he's not being offensive, he is in fact being WILDLY offensive. The fact that he's being cute about it doesn't change the fact that he is completely dehumanizing people with developmental disabilities, reducing them to a superficial and amusing construct. As soon as I heard the words "God's clowns", I made a mental note to remove Maron's podcast from my iTunes subscription list.

But then he continued, and maybe won me back a little. Maron said that later that night, he attended a concert, and standing behind him was a man with a developmental disability, shouting joyfully for the band. And at first, Maron felt validated by this young man and his exuberant happiness. But then...

Marc Maron:
"When I heard him, I again felt that excitement like, you know, he's so excited, it's so raw. And then I look over and he's with someone who must have been his dad, and this dude just looked like every bit of everything had been drained out of his being. And it was in that moment that I realized that I guess it's only fun for a little while. And that's when I stopped doing that bit."

There is so much that's wrong with this. The fact that he can't identify at all with the young man himself, but only feels the beginning of compassion for the young man's father, is troubling. More than troubling, really. It is an incomplete epiphany. But when I listen to it again, I can at least hear the beginnings of something, a spark of understanding. Maron sees how the lives of persons with disabilities might be more challenging than he's considered in the past, although he's unable to see any further than the challenges facing a disabled person's family. It's woefully inadequate, but it might just be a different kind of seed, one from which good things might sprout.

Later in the interview, Jeselnik also has his own "almost" moment. He's unflinching in his commitment to making jokes about those with developmental disabilities, but he goes on to explain why he won't make jokes using the "N-Word":

Anthony Jeselnik:
"I had a joke where I used the word 'nigger' but I just couldn't. I said it twice in the joke, and I said 'I just can't, I can't do this.' I didn't feel right saying it."

Marc Maron:
"Well, you probably shouldn't, right? Does that frustrate you, that you can't say that word?"

Anthony Jeselnik:
"It kind of bugs me because I feel like I can't say it. There's no other word that I feel that way about."

Marc Maron:
"And why do you feel like you can't say it?"

Anthony Jeselnik:
"You know, I feel like I have friends who I can picture their faces, you know, black friends, when I say things..."

Marc Maron:
"But you don't want to be one of those guys who are accused by your black friends of just using it gratuitously because you want to try to take some ownership of that word."

Anthony Jeselnik:
"I don't even care about being accused of it, I just feel like that word has so much power over a certain group of people, more than any other. I would never want to hurt someone's feelings... That word gets so specific that I don't think I could look my black friends in the face if I came off stage after telling that joke."

Marc Maron:
"You know why that is? Because there's no reason for white people to use that word. I've had discussions with guys before who are like, 'Hey, it's just a word.' Yeah, okay, but it's a word that has a very deep meaning to a lot of people..."

It makes me think of this again:



Here are two guys who are, in my opinion (and I suspect in yours, too), squarely on the wrong side of history regarding humor based on laughing at people with developmental disabilities. And yet, I can't help but think that there might be seeds there, tiny little dormant seeds that may never break open, may never send shoots up into the sun.

But they might. They very well might. That's the kind of thing I hope for.

August 25, 2011

Just a Word: Smarty-Pants Edition

The National Society of Collegiate Scholars has teamed up with Special Olympics for a new public service announcement. The NSCS provides scholarships to students who are in the top twenty percent of their class. They have more than 700,000 members from over 270 colleges in all fifty states and Puerto Rico (you lovely island).

The take-away message might be "Smarty-pants people don't say 'retard'. So don't you do it, either." I can get behind that message.

August 9, 2011

Just a Word: The Change-Up Edition

(Note: After some private and refreshingly non-shouty consultation with persons more familiar with the particular issues surrounding self-advocacy by persons with disabilities, I can see now that this wasn't a terribly well-written post. In particular, it lacked inclusivity, which, given how hard we've worked to create an inclusive environment for Schuyler, was a particularly obnoxious oversight on my part.

I hope that the larger point I was trying to convey isn't lost. Regardless, I apologize to those who felt slighted by my limited perspective. Like any other parent advocate, I stand astride two communities, those of the neurotypical and the disabled, and I don't always feel like I fit in or represent either one of them all that effectively. But I do try, and I will continue to try to improve.)





Well. Let it never be said that the entertainment world isn't committed to providing material to blog about.

From "The Change-Up", from Universal Pictures

Mitch Planko (Ryan Reynolds), about his friend's twin babies: "Why aren't they talking? Are they retarded? This one looks a little Downsy."

Let's dispense, for the moment, with the usual debate about freedom of speech or how comedy supposedly works or whether or not anyone needs to lighten up or pull a stick out of their butt. Instead, let's write a story. We can even pretend it's fiction.

Imagine a parent with a child who has Down syndrome. I actually have one in mind, a strong and positive writer whom I've become friends with over the past few years. But you probably have your own friends or acquaintances you can imagine.

So let's say it's a mom, one who spends her days, her years, taking care of a child, a very special child in every sense of the word. She loves this child the way most special needs parents love our children, which is to say, with equal parts gentleness and ferocity. She understands what the lesser of her fellow citizens of this rough world thinks of her kid when they see the evidence of disability stamped on a child's face but don't bother to look beyond. Perhaps she knows better than most how this attitude diminishes the shallow observer, not her child. Maybe she's found that peace.

Let's imagine that this mom likes comedies, and not just polite ones, either. Like most special needs parents, she probably engages in quite a bit of dark humor herself, the jokes and remarks made to her spouse or other special needs parents and no one else. She appreciates edgy humor, and she liked The Hangover, so when a new movie by the same writer comes out, she decides to take a few hours out of her weekend and go see it.

Perhaps her husband watches her child for her while she's at the movie theater. It would be nice if they could go together, but that's a luxury that's not afforded to every special needs family. If she's single (as so many special needs parents are; about 75% get divorced, according to a recent study), she's had to find a babysitter. This simple act for a typical family is one fraught with anxiety for the special needs parent. Qualified babysitters are hard to find; trust is even more difficult to build. Perhaps a member of her family will watch her child, but that's not a given, either. Many special needs parents have family members who don't get it, who have declined to watch our kids or who have made statements that we'd expect from fussy old ladies at the grocery store. (For me, it's always the old ladies, and it's always at the store.) So a family babysitter isn't a given, either.

But however it happens, our imaginary mom finds a way to go see The Change-Up. She's there, sitting in the dark, laughing at the movie, enjoying herself and pushing down the guilt, that feeling of abandonment that we feel when we dare to spend time doing something for ourselves. Perfectly reasonable, this time away, yet it's hard not to feel as if we've left our child unprotected somehow.

That feeling of leaving her child undefended suddenly swells when she hears it. "This one looks a little Downsy." Our imaginary mom is suddenly confronted with a room full of people, laughing right along with famous faces on the screen, in a multi-million dollar production worked on by thousands of people, approved by studio executives, writers, actors. All those cinema professionals, and none of them, NOT ONE, ever said "You know, we're making fun of purely innocent, absolutely blameless people here. We're making a shitty joke about people with disabilities, people who are brothers and sisters and sons and daughters of the moviegoers who are going to pay money to see this film. That strikes me as a dick move. Maybe we shouldn't do this."

Because this simple recognition of the absence of basic human dignity has not occurred to any of the decision-makers of this giant Hollywood production, our imagined mother sits alone in the dark, and she understands all over again, as if she could ever really forget, that a large segment of society, of the people she walks with and works with and attends church with right alongside her child, this chunk of society finds humor in her child's disability. They think her family's pain is appropriate as a punchline. This mom was right here with them, and does that make her complicit? She thinks maybe it does. Maybe she gets up and leaves the theater in the middle of the movie. Maybe she goes home to her child, feeling more than ever that her place is here, not out there with this great invisible THEM, the ones who will always place her and her child and her family apart.

But if people laughed, I suppose it works out okay when you do the studio executive math.

Again, I'm not asking you not to engage in this kind of humor. It's your soul, after all. You're the one who has to figure out what you're willing to do for a laugh, to fit in with the cool kids, and still sleep at night. But here's what I would like for you to do, if you're asking, which you're probably not.

If I ask you to close your eyes and imagine the kind of person who would casually use the word "nigger" to describe another human being, there might be some variation of the character that any one of you would build in your imagination, but I seriously doubt it would be someone you'd admire. I don't think you'd create the mental image of a person you'd trust your kids with, and I certainly don't think you'd imagine yourself.

When the greater part of society reaches the point where that exercise of the imagination would have the same result with the word "retard", we'll be on our way. That's what I'd like. It really is exactly that simple.

And "downsy"? That's vile. If you laughed at that, please go live in a hut somewhere, far far away from actual human people.

June 28, 2011

Just a word: Tracy Morgan Edition

Just a word, Redux by Citizen Rob
Just a word, Redux, a photo by Citizen Rob on Flickr.
It's been almost two months since I gave my own perspective on the so-called "R-Word" (May 5, 2001 - "Just a Word"), and an interesting conversation has grown out of it. The discussion gave me the opportunity to clarify my position a bit, and to also navigate some of the grey areas in my own thinking.

The most important point for me was that I'm not looking for some kind of ban on the word, which is a silly idea anyway. I don't want to stop people from saying that someone or something is "retarded" if they really want to. If someone feels compelled to use a word like "retard", I think they should absolutely do so, because I want to know that about them and the kind of person they are. And as a person who once used that word fairly frequently, even in my writing (and as recently as four years ago), I felt a little like Nixon going to China. If I can change because of my own experiences with my daughter and the people who would use that word on her, then maybe other people who have greater sensitivity than me can do it, too.

And honestly, I also want to give them a chance to convince me. I want them to understand exactly how powerful a word like that can be, and if they DO get that and still think it's the word they need to use, then I'm all ears. I'm probably not going to agree with them, but I don't think I'm going to change anyone's mind if I try to silence them from saying what they want to say.

Mostly, I want them to NOT want to say it in the first place. I want the word "retard" to taste bad in their mouths.

I was asked to join a Facebook group the other day, one that takes a fairly hard and unforgiving line against any use of the word "retarded" in the entertainment world. Ultimately, I declined. I understand what they wanted to do, but when someone like Lady Gaga or even President Obama slips up and makes an insensitive remark, it's their reaction and the steps they take to make it right that I think provide a chance for real change. You learn a great deal about a person's heart by how they react when they screw up. The word "retarded" has become such a part of the popular culture, and prying it out of the vernacular is going to take some patient work.

Furthermore, I couldn't get behind the group's blanket boycott of television shows and films with characters who use the word. When a celebrity makes a stupid remark in public, I am all for holding them responsible. But what about when a writer uses a word like "retarded" in a line of dialogue to help create a realistic character, like when portraying a snotty teenager on "The Killing"? (The most offensive thing about that show was the season finale; don't even get me started.) Or if the word is used by despicable characters in order to make a larger point about society and the entertainment industry, as in "Tropic Thunder"? As a writer, I have to respect that nuance, and the right of other writers to use ugliness to draw larger pictures.

There's a saying that if the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem starts to look like a nail. I don't easily take up that particular hammer.

So there are grey areas, and there are honest mistakes that can be remedied, and in those remedies, further awareness of the power of words can be increased in society. If we attack every single utterance of "retarded" and refuse to accept the apologies of those who offer them, we're going to be using our very limited resources to play a gigantic, losing game of Whack-A-Mole. In most cases, we need to educate, not punish.

Because sometimes, there are battles that are truly deserving of every ounce of outrage we can muster. There are people who use the word "retarded" deliberately, not with the slip of a tongue and not wielded satirically, but with cold, cruel calculation, for the purpose of mocking children with disabilities. For easy laughs.

Cue Tracy Morgan...

(From NYTimes.com:)

After another brief flirtation with a woman in the crowd, Mr. Morgan turned sincere. "I love you all so much," he said, "did I tell you that tonight? I've been in trouble lately, and this was big for me that you all came out."

Whatever he had been accused of, Mr. Morgan said, "I don't have that in me. I believe gay, straight, anybody, everybody's supposed to be happy in this world, man."

Resuming his routine, Mr. Morgan warned his audience, "Don't ever mess with women who have retarded kids." As groans and cries of "Uh-oh" were heard, he continued, "Them young retarded males is strong. They're strong like chimps."

Finally, he concluded with a bit about his alleged teenage romance with a girl he described as "a cripple" with a prosthetic arm, a mechanical larynx and a portable dialysis machine.

Read it again.

Tracy Morgan didn't make a mistake, any more than his recent and vile anti-gay remarks were an accident. It wasn't an "oops" moment. He couldn't have thought for a moment that no one was paying attention, not on the heels of his previous homophobic remarks. It wasn't off the cuff. Knowing the risk he was taking, Tracy Morgan deliberately made a horrible, stupid and premeditated joke about a specific group of people whom he concluded were mostly powerless to push back.

I'm going to cynically suggest that he may very well have concluded correctly.

One of the most surprising defenses of using the word "retarded" as an insult that I've heard, on many occasions, is the idea that it's okay because a great many of those in a position to be hurt probably don't even know they've been insulted, and can't really respond meaningfully. (If you truly believe that makes it better and not worse, I have two words for you, and they're not "Happy Birthday".) But that argument might actually speak to an ugly truth, at least indirectly. In the entertainment industry, I suspect that the degree of the offense is largely determined by the power of the group being offended. Power as defined by purchasing power, political power, the power to organize and fundraise, the power to withdraw financial support, the power to boycott. The power to be heard.

Who's going to speak up for "retarded kids"? Parents? Kennedys? Is NBC going to risk firing their 30 Rock cash cow over this? Will Tina Fey and Star Jones express any regret for their earlier defense of Morgan's "good heart"?

If you've read my thoughts on use of the word "retarded" and wondered where I draw the line without nuance or shades of grey, here you go. I know he's not alone in the comedy world, but he's got a bigger platform than most. Tracy Morgan just set my gold standard for "Don't say that."

I hope I'll need to update this post to report on real consequences as a result of Tracy Morgan's attack on children with disabilities, probably the most powerless among us. But I'd be lying if I said I thought that was going to happen.

THIS is the fight. THESE are the kinds of things that lurk out there, the attitudes towards a segment of our population that struggles for respect like no other. We simply must make significant cultural and societal changes and acknowledge that the struggles of those with disabilities are nothing less than human rights issues.

Sometimes it's hard to identify the battles that are worth fighting.

Sometimes? Not so hard.

-----

Update, 6/30:  Well, more of a non-update.  The Associated Press put it succinctly.
(AP) – Thus far, Morgan has offered no response.
Well, why would he?

May 5, 2011

Just a word.


The world is just bound and determined to make me take a stand on the "R Word", isn't it?

The short story of why this came up this week is this: An old friend from high school had a comment thread going on Facebook, about politics and Osama bin Laden and all that, and another person from high school took the opportunity to insult all of us Liberals with a term cleverly derived from the word "retard". When I called her on this, a few people voiced similar opinions of distaste for the word, at which point another old friend surprised me by suggesting that the use of the term was fine in a political context, particularly by someone who had served in the armed forces in the past. "SOMEBODY here wanted to make this whole thing about him and/or his family," she said about me, "and the rest of you joined in for the stoning by making this an issue about special needs kiddos."

Here's how I responded, in the moment:

I'm sorry, I like you, but you don't get to decide who is offended by a term like "retard". You don't get to decide if that awful word and the associations that accompany it are acceptable in a public discourse, about politics or anything else. You don't get to decide if the families who face that kind of crap EVERY FUCKING DAY need to get over ourselves. You don't get to decide that context makes it okay to use a word that gets thrown around in reference to kids who can't even defend themselves as an insult to anyone. You don't get to decide that my child and tens of thousands like her are acceptable as punchlines. If you don't understand why YOU don't get to make that decision, then I simply don't know what to say. It's not about politics or freedom of speech. It's about being a goddamn decent human being.

Now, the person who made the original comment wasn't someone I'd ever been friends with in high school. Frankly, she was an idiot* back then and she has apparently committed to that state of affairs for the long haul, bless her heart. But the other person was someone for whom I actually have a great deal of respect. It was a harsh reminder that even among the good at heart, there are blind spots where disability is concerned. Or at least the use of that one loaded, terrible and stupid word.

*(Edited to add: Yes, I know. "Idiot" is kind of the same thing, from like a hundred years ago. I would no doubt be considered quite the scandalous cur in 19th century parlors and sanitoriums.)

In the past, I haven't really wanted to make much of the whole "R Word" issue. I know it means a lot to others, and I totally understand, but I thought it would be possible to take a more nuanced position. I'm a special needs parent and advocate, yes, but I'm also a writer, and the idea of "banned" terminology doesn't sit easily with me. And honestly, it's a word that over the years, I have had to work to keep from coming out of my own mouth, and particularly in my past writing. I'll confess to that. I wasn't offended by Tropic Thunder; on the contrary, I felt like it was satirically taking issue with movie actors who cynically use disability roles to boost their careers. And I've always felt that when someone outside the disability community uses that word, much like when white people use the "N Word", the person ultimately damaged in the eyes of the world is the user more than anyone else. Try using the word "retard" in a job interview and see where it gets you. You'd might as well wear a swastika on your head.

I wrote about this once before when it came up in regards to my daughter. Back in the spring of 2009, the school diagnostician wanted to give Schuyler another IQ test, one that would, in her opinion, give her a new and more accurate number. That number would classify Schuyler as mentally retarded.

We chose not to allow that test, and I think I can say with absolute certainty that we never will. But the conversation put something on the table, something undeniable, and once placed on the table, it never really goes away.

"In a range consistent with mental retardation." Retardation. Retarded. The "R Word".

Retard.

I have a little exercise for those of you who aren't a part of the disability community. I want you to say that word. (I'm not going to call it the "R Word" any more. If you want to use this shitty word, let's own it.) I want you to say it out loud to yourself. "Retard." (If you're at work, you might want to wait until later.) See how it feels, just as an independent word without context.

Now I want you to scroll down and find a photo of Schuyler. Look at it and say it again. "Retard." Because whether or not we ever allow a therapist or a teacher to attach that label, it's one that is already being tossed her way, and has been since she was very young. So try it. Look at her and say "retard". How does the word taste in your mouth now?

Now I'd like you to google terms like "developmental disability" and "Down syndrome", and go look at some of those kids. Look into their eyes and say "retard".

In each of these scenarios, try to assign yourself a number. Imagine how many times you think any of these kids has heard the word "retard". Now line up all the people who ever said it to them and then put yourself at the back of that line. What do you want to say to the person ahead of you? What about the next person who gets in that line behind you? How long do you think that line would be for adults with developmental disabilities?

Now, just for kicks, pull out a photo of YOUR kid, or your nephew or your brother or sister. Doesn't even have to be a kid, just someone that you love fiercely and would defend with everything you are. Look into their eyes and say it. "Retard." Imagine it's not you saying it, but someone else, some other person. Maybe a stranger, maybe someone you know and even like and trust.

Now imagine that other person trying to tell you that you're being overly sensitive, you're being "PC", that they have a right to use that word however they want, that it's okay in a certain context such as politics. Imagine they're calling you or someone else a retard, but instead of hearing that as a random insult, you associate it with someone you love, and that association is, by design, intended to be devastating and intentionally using your loved one as a benchmark for extreme stupidity.

Now, repeat this exercise until you want to break something, until you want to burn down the whole world.

That's how it feels to us when you use the word "retard".

Do I sound like a one-issue guy? I know that I do. I hate that I've become that person, and I hope I won't be forever, but yeah, maybe I have. I was once a fairly active political creature. In college, I once stood outside the death house in Huntsville protesting an execution. I even worked on the Paul Simon campaign, and how many people even remember who that was? I also used to bring the funny, or at least I thought so. And I used to write a great deal about music, which is what I thought the focus of my life would always be.

But this is it. This is who I am now. Every day, I feel the rest of it being put away, being filtered out, and what is left is a father with a broken little girl. And I get that wrong, a lot, but when I get it right, I am momentarily the person I am supposed to be.

There are people in this world, and I'm actually thinking of the parties involved in this particular incident, who have single issues dominating their lives as well. Some of them have served their country in the armed forces; others have children who are doing the same, and for them politics is very personal. Their passions come from those single dominating issues, and I get that.

But that passion, or that service for that matter, it doesn't give you license to use kids like Schuyler as insults or punchlines. You have a right to call me stupid because of my beliefs, absolutely. But you don't have license to say that I am so stupid that I am on the level of a child with a developmental disability, MY child, OUR children, as if that is the worst thing I could ever fear to be. You don't get to portray yourself as a child of God while you throw the most defenseless of us under the bus to score some point in a ridiculous Facebook comment thread.

Not without me calling you on it. Not without me at least giving you the option of looking into your own heart and deciding if you like what you see.