I am constantly amazed at how it is still OK to be openly prejudiced against people with disabilities. Racists typically hide their racism or are called out on it immediately. Homophobia is no longer tolerated. But bigotry towards the disability community gets a pass.
We see it in the media, in politics, in the entertainment industry. We hear it from our neighbors, friends, and even family.
But when you talk to those who spew hateful words and attitudes about someone with disabilities – they often don’t realize it’s hateful. When they drop the r-bomb they think everyone still does it. When they joke about how someone belongs in the Special Olympics, they think they’re being politically correct because they aren’t calling them retarded. And of course there is just the general attitude that people with disabilities are somehow lesser human beings. It’s ingrained. It’s accepted. And we hear, see it, feel it every day.
It’s a tough pill to swallow. As a seasoned advocate, I usually have no problem correcting someone when they casually drop the r-bomb or say something ridiculous. But sometimes I am so taken aback by actions or words I just don’t know how to respond.
A prime example is something that happened weeks ago that I am still processing. My family and I were hanging out with friends. They seem to have accepted my son, who has Down syndrome. But then someone mentions that another family we know freaks her husband out because one of their children has dwarfism. The comment was meant to be entertaining. It wasn’t. I was shocked that people could hold such prejudice against a young, innocent child simply because she wasn’t born with our society’s ideals of perfection.
I didn’t speak up. I was dumbfounded. Just like I’ve been shocked into silence at other moments when people think it’s OK to call someone or something retarded and then defend themselves. I think I’m left speechless most often when people I thought were enlightened or progressive prove otherwise.
Prejudice will always exist; we all have them. Most people know better than to put theirs out there in mixed company. I grew up in a rural community in the Midwest. Teachers who were gay stayed in the closet. Some parents used the N-word freely in front of their children. Our peers with disabilities – we never saw them. Children would say nasty things to each other because they would repeat what they heard at home. For the most part, though, the adults knew to keep their prejudice to themselves. They saved it for people who they knew shared their views.
And, aside from a certain presidential candidate and some of his supporters, that’s how most people behave in public. They put on a façade because they know that that kind of thinking is not accepted by the general public. Some of them recognize their beliefs are hurtful and harmful.
But when it comes to disability, it’s a free for all. If you call someone on the hurtful hateful ways they’re speaking – you often get push back. You hear the freedom of speech argument, you hear that you’re too sensitive, you hear “saying that was acceptable when I was younger,” you hear about how being politically correct is getting out of control.
Take, for example, comedian Gary Owen. In his Showtime special he ridiculed a woman he claims is his cousin, calling her retarded and mocking her sex life. When people protested his act, he turned it on them, claiming he was being bullied. Ann Coulter has defended her use of the r-word on Twitter. Even “beloved” comedian Louis CK called Sarah Palin’s young son with Down syndrome retarded and went on to nastily refer to Palin’s nether-regions as “retard-making.”
You can find the repulsive audio here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tkEzSZ3c1zk
Why? Why is it OK for a comedian that so many consider brilliant to attack a child just because he has an intellectual disability? And how the hell is that funny?
Perhaps the bigger question is, why aren’t the rest of us OUTRAGED. This is hate speech directed toward fellow human beings. Yet, we are confronted with it so regularly that unless you are affected by disability you often don’t even see it. Sometimes it is bold and offensive and disgusting – that’s usually easy to respond to.
It’s the sleeper situations that catch us off guard. When someone says a 3-year-old grosses him out because she looks different than other kids. When a fellow mom at a playground casually drops the r-bomb. When a holiday dinner turns tense after you correct someone for calling your child retarded. When adults dissect a peer’s parenting because they think they know what every child with autism is like. When an aunt you adore politely makes it clear she sees your child as less than human. When civic leaders at a community event want the photo-op with your child because he’s ‘different’ but could care less about the other cute kids in attendance.
How do we react in those situations? Those every day moments that make us cringe and uncomfortable and put us at a loss for words. What do we say then? Because those are the times where we can truly, gently, politely impact change.
Nobody is perfect. But when we acknowledge our thinking is flawed and try to change our behavior – we will change the world for the better.