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

May 18, 2017

I see you. I see what you’re doing.

Today at Support for Special Needs:
We push back against ableist speech, over and over again, because we hope, against all the evidence to the contrary, that things might get better. And they did just a little, for a while, I think. And then a candidate for the presidency made fun of a reporter with a disability, and the citizens of this country saw the video of his grotesque behavior and decided that yeah, that’s our guy. And while that at least gave us a platform for advocating for disability rights, particularly at the Democratic National Convention, it also gave people license to say and do terrible things about and to our loved ones. So in the balance, things probably don’t change all that much after all.

August 30, 2016

The invisible monsters who walk among us

Today at Support for Special Needs:
Everyone cry out, because such a statement demands outcry. Ann Coulter stands proudly and feeds off of us, a vampire hungry for hate and sorrow and lights and cameras. But we stand up and we push back, because "standard retard" doesn't get to flutter out into the air without being swatted at. It doesn't do any good to protest, but it feels evil not to, so we speak up and then we turn back to our lives, our difficult but rewarding lives. Ann Coulter may be rich and she may be famous, but not one of us in the disability community would trade places with her, not for a moment.

May 3, 2016

Safe Space

Today at Support for Special Needs:
Hate speech and its environment protect a societal belief that only those who may contribute to society in a very narrow manner are worthy of citizenship and humanity, rather than just pity. We treat people according to the worth we grant them, and the hate speech that is so prevalent in our society affords them very little value. Simple words, thrown around casually and carelessly, like grenades, like poison seeds that will blossom where they fall. 
Hate speech directed at those with disabilities creates safe spaces, from which very dangerous gardens grow.

April 29, 2016

The Very, Very Worst

This is Schuyler.

Schuyler is sixteen years old. She plays percussion in her high school band. Schuyler participates in Miracle League soccer and volunteers with Miracle League kids who play baseball, helping out with their practices and their games while wearing a Wonder Woman cap. She takes an art class and writes stories about dragons and monster armies and evil queens. She's a huge Star Wars fan and loves Rey the most, although she's got a soft spot in her heart for Sabine and Ahsoka, too. She vacillates between carefree atheism and curious agnosticism. Schuyler's ambition in life is to help others, particularly people with disabilities, those who have "little monsters like my own", as she puts it. The little monster of her own that she's referring to is the brain malformation called Polymicrogyria, which is the root of most of her struggles and will be for her entire life.

And at this stage of her life, the thing Schuyler wants more than anything in the world is close relationships. With friends, yes, but also more. Schuyler wants to date. She wants to find someone to share her life with, at least the life she's in right now. She can't tell you what that looks like, not even for sure if it's a boy or a girl she's searching for. She only knows that she wants to explore love, and one day soon, as much as it makes me twitchy to say it, she'll want to explore physical relationships as well. Finding that in her life, breaking her loneliness and leaving her too-long lingering childhood behind, these are of paramount importance to her, in ways that can be heartbreaking to watch.

So here's my question to you, reader. Do you think that idea is gross? Do you find it ridiculous to even imagine? Do you find the idea of Schuyler and young people like her with intellectual disabilities having physical and romantic relationships to be something that just cries out to be a punchline, not just of a joke but of a whole comedy routine?

Comedian Gary Owen does.

Apparently BET and Showtime do, too, since they've invested in giving his act, including his disability-related material, a home in their television lineup.

I'm not going to embed his routine in this post; the thought of his face anywhere near my daughter's makes me want to set things on fire. But I will link to the excerpt on YouTube. I encourage you to go watch it, because I want you to understand how much is at stake here, and exactly how bad it can be for people with intellectual disabilities in our popular culture. But if you choose not to go watch it, I'll understand that, too. I watched it halfway through once and then finally got the stomach to see the whole thing earlier today. That's enough for me; I'll never watch it again. It really is the very, very worst.

If you're not inclined to see it for yourself, I'll give you the salient points.

1) Gary Owen tells a story about his cousin, who is, as he says, "retarded". If you miss him sharing this with you, don't worry. He repeats this information, and that word, many times throughout his comedy bit.

2) The story involves what he believes is the unbelievable revelation that his cousin is sexually active. Even more shocking to Mr. Owen is the fact that her partner also has an intellectual disability. This conceit forms the core of his comedy routine. Two people with intellectual disabilities have a sexual relationship. Isn't that disgusting? Isn't it hilarious?

3) To illustrate this point, he impersonates what he imagines his cousin and her partner's behavior might have been like. Not just the courting, but the actual act of sex.

4) If you're imagining this to be the most awful thing you're likely to see someone perform in mainstream pop culture, I'm going to warn you. It's probably even worse than you're imagining.

5) All of this is okay, Mr. Owen assures us, because it's his cousin. That familial relationship gives him license to make her the butt of his comedy routine, to insist that her sex life must be an awkward joke, and to impersonate both her and her partner in the act. Also, and this is very important, he claims to have volunteered for Special Olympics for ten years on her behalf. (He notes his sacrifice in this regard, since, you know, Special Olympians run funny. He had to endure that, you see.) So, you know, he's one of us. He has license.

When he began to get some negative reaction to his material, shockingly so since he sees himself as such a beloved member of the disability family, he responded by posting a link to an interview with comedian Louis CK, in which Louis says, "Saying that something is too terrible to joke about, that's like saying a disease is too terrible to try to cure. That's what you do with awful things, you joke about them. That's how you get through it."

What Gary Owen doesn't appear to understand is this: It's not his thing to get through. He doesn't have an intellectual disability. No one is suggesting that his life and his own sexuality is a disgusting idea worthy of about five minutes of cruel, grotesque jokes and impersonations. Joking about it doesn't help him deal with the pain because there is no pain for him. Only a target. The fact that he may or may not have worked with Special Olympics doesn't make it any better. It makes it exponentially worse. When he suggests, through the Louis CK quote, that intellectual disability is an "awful thing", he should know that in this case, the "awful thing" about their disability is in fact Gary Owen.

I don't know Gary Owen's comedy; like many who are becoming familiar with his body of work because of this particular comedy bit, I knew nothing about him until now. (Nothing like a first impression.) I can't say whether he's funny or smart, except on the evidence of this one routine, which would strongly suggest that he is neither.

But Gary Owen has figured something out that is fairly insightful, and he's using it to earn some cheap but loud laughs. Gary Owen knows that our society doesn't see people with intellectual disabilities as whole human beings, and subsequently many people find the idea of these people having sexual lives to be uncomfortable. Schuyler and her friends can be cute, and they can be inspiring, even. As long as they remain forever children, forever without adult agency, they are allowed a place in our society.

Beyond that, however, people with intellectual disabilities run into trouble. Having awareness of their own adult emotions and bodies, and enjoying the agency to engage in relationships and live sexually active lives, these are the things that human beings do. It's not something that children engage in, and to so many in our society, people with intellectual disabilities are forever children.

In his heart of hearts, I think Gary Owen understands that the targets of his grotesque humor deserve better. He makes excuses and tries to cover his own culpability with his past volunteerism. He knows that what he's doing is terribly, horribly wrong. But the tragedy and the danger of the matter is simply this: Gary Owen may know better, but judging from the howls of laughter in that video clip, his audience doesn't.

In the past, I've written about the use of the word "retarded" in pop culture, but this time, I wish that's all that was going in. If Gary Owen stood up and simply said, "Retards, what are you gonna do, am I right?", I don't think I would do much more than link on Facebook and say, "Hey, look at this asshole." Watching Owen's wretched comedy routine makes me ill, and it makes me angry. It hits so much deeper than other comedians have in the past because he's not just being cruel. He's not just making fun of young adults like Schuyler, calling them less.

Gary Owen is attacking the very idea that someone with an intellectual disability deserves to be a human being at all.

I'm not sure what I should do, and I'm certainly not sure what I think you should do, either. There's a petition to get Showtime to remove this particular segment from his comedy special, which is a start, I guess. I don't think they'll do it; I'm not even sure they can, legally. Remarks he's making on his Facebook page suggest that Gary Owen has zero intention of trying to make any of this better, and his fans seem to be fiercely loyal. I'm not sure there's much to be done in winning hearts and minds.

But I do know this. I need to do something. I need to know that lots of people feel that same impulse. I need to make some noise. I need to shake some trees and kick some walls. I need to howl at the sky and grab people by the shoulders and tell them about this. I need to expend energy in trying to fix this unfixable problem, because my daughter deserves a full, rich, human life experience. She does, her friends do, and the adults they will all become deserve to have their humanity recognized.

Words matter. Media acceptance of what is, in this case, undeniably hate speech, this matters. It matters that executives at BET and Showtime watched that comedy bit and said, "Yeah, that's great stuff. Let's put our brand on that and sell it to our subscribers." It matters a very great deal that many, many people are okay with that choice.

Schuyler and people like her live complicated and difficult lives. People like Gary Owen make those lives much more complicated and much more difficult. If I could say one thing to Mr. Owen and to the people in that audience laughing so hard and to his online fans defending him, it would be this:

Please stop. Please, just fucking stop.

EDITED TO ADD: When I tried to explain the comedy routine to Schuyler (without actually showing it to her, because I'm not a monster), she was obviously pretty pissed off. She asked if she could make a video in response. I said yes. Well, of course I did.

April 25, 2016

Community Standards

This morning at Support for Special Needs:
Some of the different hats I wear in my life don't always compliment each other very well. Even though I hate the R Word with the zealotry of a late convert, I'm also a writer, and I don't take the cudgel against language without real hesitation. But as a writer, I have to accept that words have actual power, and when we use them, we have responsibility for the outcome. The concept of hate speech results from the acknowledgement that powerful things sometimes need to be checked. I'd prefer that in this particular case, the checks would be self-applied, and that simply basic humanity would lead you to look at a language containing approximately 1,025,110 words and pick one that didn't cause so much pain to a particularly vulnerable population. I'm not for banned language, as a rule. But I recognize that hate speech occupies a very particular place in our culture, and our response to it is especially important.

March 8, 2016

Uncivil Discource

Today at Support for Special Needs:
There are a lot of reasons I'm already disgusted and exhausted by this election season. If you want to understand, spend about twenty minutes on Facebook, or a minute and a half watching one of the debates. But perhaps the most disheartening for me right now is the intersection of politics and that old familiar ugliness, our society's propensity for using our most vulnerable population so cheaply and with so little regard for their basic humanity. I made a promise to never give my silent consent to dehumanizing our loved ones by saying nothing in the moment, and I intend to keep it. But it's sucking the life out of me, and I'm beginning to feel like if this is as good as we are, we deserve one of these embarrassments as our President. We deserve to be represented by our own kind.

August 24, 2015

Seriously. Just Stop.

Today at Support for Special Needs:
Is it fair, taking that word away from you? Don't you have a right to use whatever word you please? Surely brave patriots gave their lives at Lexington and Bunker Hill so that King George the Third couldn't keep you from watching reality TV and saying "This show is so retarded." I don't have an answer for you, because at this point, the question isn't about your rights. It's not. You're an American; you've got the right to say whatever you please. (If you're not an American, then check your local listings, I guess.) You've also got the right to eat that pizza with the hot dogs in the crust or vote for Donald Trump. Being an American means you can do all sorts of horrible things.

March 16, 2015

F Word

Today at Support for Special Needs:

For Schuyler, I don't think it's being different that bothers her. She'll proudly tell anyone who asks what church she goes to, for example, that she is a theist, which means she believes in God but not religion. In this town, that's a bold statement. But the difference of disability still rankles her. She can hear a thousand times that being different isn't a bad thing, and I'm pretty sure she even believes it, up to a point. But only just to that point, somewhere shy of emotional truth.

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


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.)


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?


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.  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:

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


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.