Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The "R" word revisted... (may be offensive to some)

For those of you who know me well, you know about my utter disdain for the "r" word (you can even read about it here in a post from over three years ago). My good college friend Kristi, who has a beautiful daughter (Kyla) with Down Syndrome, has alerted me to the fact that the "r" word is going to be making a dreaded comeback because of a new movie that is coming out.

I know many of you are not going to agree with the message below or see the point of it, but maybe it will just make you aware that some of the things that come out of people's mouths can be way more hurtful than you realize.

Imagine if your child was disabled and his classmates (or classmates' parents) decided to wear a shirt that is mentioned below. How do you explain it? My daughter, who appears "normal" or "typical" has a disease called PDC - it is a neurological disorder related to dystonia that can make her look "twisted". She went to a wonderful preschool for a year that was partially funded by the generous ARC (the Association for Retarded Citizens). She is now in the preschool in the public school and was placed in the pre-K last year because she tested high. She is very social, witty and smart. Yet she is considered "retarded" by definition (delayed in some areas). Do you realize how hurtful it is when she and I are in the store and someone says to their companion or into their cell phone, "Stop being so retarded" or "I must be retarded, I can't find the hairspray"?

I am posting this to raise awareness on how hurtful words can be. I don't know if boycotting this movie is the answer, but what i do know is this: Role models - be it actors, athletes, teachers, or parents - please choose your words carefully. You never know who is listening.

My friend's email:

As someone who has enjoyed some of Ben Stiller's movies
and appreciates Robert Downey Jrs work, I am greatly saddened by what I am
hearing about their new movie "Tropic Thunder."  (See below.) 
The negative use of the word "retard" and their protrayal of
the "retard stereotype" is beyond offensive - it is hurtful.  The thought of explaining to my children why
they hear in a commercial or see on a t-shirt to "never go full
retard" is sickening.  Michael is
just beginning to be more interested in Down syndrome and what it means - and
what it means for Kyla.  To have the
positive messages we are teaching him about the abilities in all of us and the
value of differences countered by the negative messages being marketed in this
film is heartbreaking.

If you were planning to see this movie, I respectfully
ask that you honor Kyla by not doing so. 
Not supporting it with our dollars is the strongest way to send a
message that this isn't ok.  This movie
does nothing to promote the respect that Kyla and other's with disabilities
deserve.  She deserves a better world,
and quite honestly, so do the rest of us.


Some of you have been following the controversy surrounding the film Tropic
Thunder and
the possible national boycott by disability groups, including the National
Down Syndrome
Congress and the national ARC. Here is an Op Ed piece by Timothy Shriver
(Eunice Kennedy
Shriver's son) that appeared in the Washington Post.

Timothy Shriver, Chairman of Special Olympics, has an op-ed piece on
"Tropic Thunder" in today's Washington Post (read below). Meanwhile,
disability advocates are preparing for a possible national boycott of the

What 'Tropic Thunder' Thinks Is Funny

By Timothy Shriver
Monday, August 11, 2008; A15

I've been told to keep my sense of humor about the film "Tropic Thunder,"
which opens this week. Despite my requests, I have not been given the chance
to see the movie. But I've seen previews, read about it and read excerpts of
the script. By all accounts, it is an unchecked assault on the humanity of
people with intellectual disabilities -- an affront to dignity, hope and

Consider this exchange:

Ben Stiller's character: "There were times when I was doing Jack when I
actually felt retarded. Like really retarded."

Robert Downey Jr.'s character: "Oh yeah. Damn."

Stiller: "In a weird way, I had to sort of just free myself up to believe
it was okay to be stupid or dumb."

Downey: "To be a moron."

Stiller: "Yeah."

At another point, about acting like a person with intellectual disabilities,
they say:

Stiller: "It's what we do, right?"

Downey: "Everybody knows you never do a full retard."

Stiller: "What do you mean?"

Downey: "Check it out. Dustin Hoffman, 'Rain Man,' look retarded, act
retarded, not retarded. Count toothpicks to your cards. Autistic, sure. Not
retarded. You know Tom Hanks, 'Forrest Gump.' Slow, yes. Retarded, maybe.
Braces on his legs. But he charmed the pants off Nixon and won a ping-pong
competition. That ain't retarded. You went full retard, man. Never go full

I worked with the Farrelly brothers on a film on this topic. I know about
comedy. I'm also told that movies are equal-opportunity offenders.

So here's an equal-opportunity response to the equal-opportunity offenders:

People with intellectual disabilities are routinely abused, neglected,
insulted, institutionalized and even killed around the world. Their parents
are told to give up, that their children are worthless. Schools turn them
away. Doctors refuse to treat them. Employers won't hire them. None of this

For centuries, they have been the exception to the most basic spiritual
principle: that we are each equal in spirit, capable of reflecting the
goodness of the divine, carriers of love. But not people with intellectual
disabilities. What's a word commonly applied to them? Hopeless.

Let's consider where we are in 2008. Our politics are about overcoming
division, our social movements are about ending intolerance, our great
philanthropists promote ending poverty and disease among the world's poor.
people with intellectual disabilities included in the mainstream of these
movements? For the most part, no.

Why? Because they're different. Their joy doesn't fit on magazine covers.
Their spirituality doesn't come in self-help television. Their kind of
doesn't command political attention. (The best of the spirit never does.)

Sadly, they're such an easy target that many people don't realize whom they
are making fun of when they use the word "retard." Most people just think
funny. "Stupid, idiot, moron, retard." Ha, ha, ha.

I know: I could be too sensitive. But I was taught that mean isn't funny.
I've been to institutions where people with intellectual disabilities are
to beds or lie on concrete floors, forgotten. I've heard doctors say they
won't treat them. I know Gallup found that more than 60 percent of Americans
don't want a person with an intellectual disability at their child's school.

I've talked to people with intellectual disabilities who cry over being
insulted on a bus. I've received too many e-mails from people who are
devastated not by their child's disability but by the terror of being
at, excluded and economically devastated.

It wasn't funny when Hollywood humiliated African Americans for a
It's never funny when good and decent human beings are humiliated. In fact,
is dangerous and disgusting.

This film is all that and more.

DreamWorks went so far as to create a
mini-version of Simple Jack and posted it online. The studio has since
it down, realizing it had gone too far, even in an age of edgy, R-rated

So, enough. Stop the hurtful jokes. Talk to your children about language
is bullying and mean. Ask your friends, your educators, your religious
to help us to end the stubborn myth that people with intellectual
are hopeless. Ask Hollywood to get on the right side of dignity.

I hope others will join me in shutting this movie out of our lives and our
pocketbooks. We don't live in times when labeling and humiliating others is
funny. And we should send that message far and wide.

The writer is chairman of Special Olympics and a columnist for's On Faith discussion site.

EDITED 8/13 11:42am EST - Great comments/points of view! I added a link and also wanted to add, as Brenda Pinnick stated in her comment, that this goes for many other words as well and not just the "r" word. Additionally, as Donna states below, perhaps we should not focus on the vocabulary and words used/chosen but rather take that energy to "educate others as to who these people are and how we deal with them and treat them." Thanks to both of you and everyone for your input.