(10AM – promoted by RiaD)
There are perhaps 15 or 20 moments in anyone’s life that are memorably perfect. This is about one of mine, which was made possible by a young woman I only knew for four weeks and whose name is Christine.
The college I was lucky enough to attend divided the academic year 4-1-4. We took four courses in the fall, and exams before Christmas break. After the holdays, we came back for four weeks for an intensive course in something in which we (and the professor who taught it) were really interested. The alternative (which we encouraged to do at least one year) was to spend those four weeks doing volunteer work. During my junior year, I traveled to South Texas to spend those four weeks volunteering at a state home for children and adults with significant to profound mental disabilities.
Back then, these children and adults were labeled significantly or profoundly “retarded.” Their IQ’s ranged from 10-40. The state home where I volunteered was clean and had many activities and many staff who were caring and kind; nevertheless, it was obvious that the people who were living there were not there by choice. For reasons I do not understand, their families had decided to send them there rather than keep them at home; and many of the people I came to know who lived there wanted desperately to be somewhere else.
In the small (but wealthy) village where I grew up, I knew two young men who then would have been labeled “retarded.” Mark was the older brother of people I knew, and I spoke with him nearly every day as he walked the streets of our Village and greeted everyone. Tommy was in my class at school. Tommy attended classes with all the rest of us throughout elementary school and, in high school, was in homeroom and gym with us, and took other special classes elsewhere. It was a really small town, and we all had known Tommy since nursery school. He played on our sports teams, ate lunch with us in the cafeteria, came to dances with us. Everyone liked Tommy and when he graduated with us, we gave him a standing ovation. He was a peach. Once, when a new kid in our high school made a disparaging remark, half the football team pinned the nay-sayer in the cafeteria.
Even in this nice setting, though, where financial and other resources were abundant, and where we had a small, well-funded progressive public school, some parents decided to send their mentally disabled children away. That was apparently the “advice” then (in the 1950s and 1960s) to parents. A friend of mine’s older sister had been in a “home” since just after birth.
I speak from what I will label as profound inexperience. I have never had a child of my own, and the stepchildren I shepherded for several years were, for the most part, easy kids. I do not know what it is like to raise a child with special needs and I will not cast aspersions on those who do.
But this is what I do know about magical moments. During that January Term, in that south Texas state school, I taught rudimentary speech therapy to four women who had profound mental disabilities. They were in their 20s and one of them was named Christine. I can still picture her freckled face and her pixie-cut auburn hair and her nice smile. Each day, I spent two hours with my group. We sat in a circle, and I held objects (ball, spoon, string), said the word for them, and passed them around. Each member of the group would then hold the object and we would practice its pronunciation. The goal, purportedly, was to correct lisps and other speech deficiencies. On the day before I was to leave, we were bouncing the rubber ball. As each young woman caught it, I said, “ball” and each of them said “ball.” And then it happened. I was holding the ball, and Christine looked at it and a look of wonder passed over her face and she pointed to it and said, “ball” and I bounced it to her and she said, so excitedly, “ball!” She had made the connection for the very first time, between an object and the word for it, and she got the biggest grin on her face. I was on the verge of tears. It was, as I said, one of the 15 or 20 best moments of my life.
And so, when I heard on NPR on Tuesday night that there was a new “funny” movie out, — Tropic Thunder — in which the characters joke about “retards,” I just couldn’t believe it. How could this possibly be deemed “funny”? Even if it is supposedly a spoof on actors.
I’m no movie maven. If it was released after 1960, it’s likely I haven’t seen it (unless it was a Star Wars movie I took my Dad to see when my Mom didn’t want to, or something starring Meryl Streep, because I love her performances). And it’s not like I have an objection to most objectionable speech, having given a speech in Cincinnati, Ohio in the early 1990s defending Robert Mapplethorpe and 2 Live Crew and having ended up defending my views on some early version of Rush Limbaugh talk radio against a bevy of persons who wished to have me deported (my response, incidentally, was to say that if they’d pay for the plane fare, I’d happily decamp to France). I decry restrictions on speech; at the same time, I would hope that we could outgrow profoundly disturbing stereotypes and just plain meanness.
In an article on the Huffington Post on Tuesday, Tim Shriver, Chairman and CEO of the Special Olympics, spoke about why he had joined a demonstration against this movie and said this:
The degrading use of the word “retard” along with the broader humiliation of people with intellectual disabilities in the film goes too far. When the R-word is casually used, and when bumbling, clueless caricatures designed to mimic the behavior of people with intellectual disabilities are portrayed on screen, they have an unmistakable outcome: they mock people with intellectual disabilities. They perpetuate the worst stereotypes. They further exclude and isolate. They are downright mean-spirited.
Mockery in any form, purpose or directed at anyone, especially those least able to defend themselves, is neither funny nor acceptable. We must work together to bring it to a stop.
People with intellectual disabilities are great athletes, productive employees, positive friends, courageous role models. Let’s open our schools, doctors’ offices, businesses, communities, and most importantly our hearts to the giftedness of every human being. No more exceptions. No more exclusion.
Some may think we ought to lighten up and not get worked up over this movie; after all, it’s just a film. I don’t believe people with intellectual disabilities are off limits as characters in film comedies.
My issue here is that films become part of pop culture and character lines are repeated in other settings, time and time again. It’s clear to me that lines from this particular film will provide hurtful ammunition outside of the movie theatre. While I realize that the film’s creators call this a parody and they never intended to hurt anyone, it doesn’t mean they won’t.
We’ve come so far over the years; we’ve branded an institution, empowered countless families and brought hope to a seemingly “hopeless” situation. Let’s right one more wrong. Ban the R-word. Ban the movie. Take a stand. Make a difference.
I’m not so sure that I would say: “Ban the movie.” And I will also note that I haven’t seen it. (Not that I plan to.) But, oh my, how much I would love to see an end to the use of the “R” word forever from any kind of discourse — polite, satirical or otherwise.
Each and every person can make a difference in someone else’s life; Christine made a difference in mine; I hope that I made a difference in hers.