Her name is Christine and she is not “retarded.”

(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.

Source ~ Huffington Post

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.


Skip to comment form

  1. I hope I made a difference in hers.

    • RiaD on August 13, 2008 at 15:09

    i’m on the fence….

    many, many words can be used hurtfully….

    being called a ‘jerk’ is horrible for me.

    one of the very worst, pointed things (in my mind) that i could call you(you as in anyone)or anyone could call me is a republican jerk…. or an asscow

    probably 95% of the readers will laugh & say~ geeze ria, thats not so bad……

    well, to me….it IS…. it’s what i really, Really, Really don’t want to be.

    i’ll take nearly every other label with a grin & shrug… redneck? yeah, sometimes….

    nazi feminist bitch? well, yeah- i can be, sometimes….

    arrogant honkey? yes i have been at times….

    DFH? Yes, thank you…..

    backwoods country bumpkin? yes! & very thankful to NOT be a concretian….

    i guess i’ve never really understood why negro was not nice but black was okay….and you are refering to the same person/group… !

    why people are no longer deaf & are now hearing impaired…?

    does this change of label change their situation?

      or change my/your perception of them?

    eh, not so much for me…. if anything, i think its a bit childish… & sticks & stones, kinda, y’know?

    to me your tale of christine is the same as that of any child finally ‘getting it’ (whatever ‘it’ is this time/situ) & all of us learn at our own pace…. hers happened to be just a bit behind the ‘majority’….. but that doesn’t make her less, at least not in my eyes… in fact, because she was still trying, still learning, i think its more admirable(she didn’t give up) & O so wonderful that you were there & a part of it….

    i think people should laugh at labels….

    “heheheh, yeah, i guess i am!?!”

    it leaves the labeler flat-footed, usually…


    i do try, in polite company, to NOT offend.

    great to see you here noweasels!

    very thought provoking essay.

    thank you.

  2. You remind me of what the really important moments in my life are all about. Thank you for that!

    And I guess I’ll just say that I don’t know that I’ll ever understand people’s attraction to words that hurt. I agree that its not a good idea to make rules about what people can/can’t say. But we have choices to make about our language. When a group of people tell us that certain words hurt – usually because of a history that they have lived and we haven’t –  what do we loose in hearing and respecting that request?

  3. Wonderful essay and……Good to see you here!

  4. My nephew is now in his 30s and back when he was a child he was diagnosed as “retarded.”

    My oldest sister has worked as hard as she can to see he has as normal a life as possible.  She’s a very strong woman, and the only time I ever saw her cry was when she was telling me how folks used the word “retard” as an insult … and how much that hurt her to hear the word used that way.

    I’ve found both in my blogging and IRL that if I let folks know it’s a hurtful word, and why, 99% of the time they stop using it.  No need for censorship or yelling, just asking is usually enough.

    I was unhappy to hear about the movie and I won’t go and see it even though I love Ben Stiller.  I guess folks will have to make up their own minds about that.

    Thanks for writing this, and I hope it makes folks think twice about using that word as an insult.

    • OPOL on August 14, 2008 at 03:09

    Thank you my friend.  So good to see you here.  🙂

    • kj on August 14, 2008 at 04:49

    and i’m sure that you did make a difference, or two, noweasels.

  5. and had “custody” of a pony for a woman who was having a child. (I ended up buying it from her the next year, with my own money, mush to my parents dismay)

    There was a field in the middle of the city, and believe me, it freaked people out to see us riding around neighborhoods.

    There was an old school across from St. Roberts, our Catholic School that had been converted to a live-in school for Autistic kids. It had a huge playground with low benches that were perfect for jumping the horse over.

    So my friend and I rode there often.

    One day, I was riding alone & a teacher came out & asked to bring the children to see my pony. She brought about 10 out, one of the “boys” was huge, a man to my young eyes, but talked like a child. I was amazed, from my small insulated world how intrigues these kids were. My pony (Charcoal) was the calmest thing ever with children, and they crawled under him, around him, petted every part of him, and the ones with best motor control I lead around. He would side-step to hold them up if they started to fall.

    So, I agreed to meet her every day around 11.

    After a coupler weeks, trust built up, she started bringing out the more severely disabled children out, a few at a time.

    One Friday she brought out this little girl, around 8 or 9… she came out, gaze averted, listless. She lead her up to Charcoal and I, (I was on him still) and suddenly she noticed us. Her eyes got huge. She started petting him, then petting my leg too…

    I took her hand, touched the horse with it and said, “Horsey,” then touched my leg and said “Girl.”

    She suddenly looked me in the eye, looked at Charcoal, and said “Horsey” pointing at him, then “Girl” pointing at me.

    I smiled and said “yes!” and she repeated it for a while. I told her my name, the horses name, and she repeated those too, in context.

    Then I looked up and noticed the teacher crying. One of the other kids had run to get more teachers and I had a CROWD around us.

    Apparently this girl had spoken until 4 or 5, then one day quit. She had classic, rocking not speaking, not looking type autism as they explained it back then. (* since then they have learned much more)

    It was a huge break through.

    I was so excited to return on Monday…. but apparently it was a good thing turned sour. The girl had started to speak normally, react normally, like the last 4 years hadn’t happened, and got sent home.

    Of course, the whole school baord found out HOW it happened, and while happy, decided that this kid (Me) on a Pony was too much liability to have on the grounds, so they had to ask me not to come anymore.

    I BAWLED. The teachers BAWLED.

    I wonder where she is and if she remembers me.

    It was life-defining for me. Any connection is good, everyone can be reached a little. While words can help define something for the clueless, only by being around people do you learn we are all lovable and worthy.

    • pico on August 15, 2008 at 03:10

    I like your work and have the utmost respect for you, but I disagree with a few things in this otherwise wonderful essay.

    For one thing, Tim Shriver, who wrote that searing criticism of the film, hasn’t actually seen it.  I consider that a major negative for him to tell us what’s in the film, and more importantly how it’s presented in the film, when he doesn’t actually know what he’s talking about.  

    You’ve addressed this a bit, but I want to elaborate for readers who don’t know much about the film: the people who have seen the film think it’s pretty funny, since the target of criticism isn’t people with mental disabilities, but the actors who are presumptuous enough to use that to their benefit.  It’s supposedly a pretty brutal slam against the tendency of the Oscars to be given to actors playing people with mental disabilities (see Tom Hanks, Dustin Hoffman, Geoffrey Rush, Tim Robbins, etc.) to the point that actors actively seek those kinds of roles.  It’s sadly not an exaggeration.  Supposedly the main target of the film is Sean Penn, who dipped shamelessly into that pool for I am Sam. In the movie, Stiller apparently plays an actor making even more shamelessly transparent attempts at prestige, so he tries to outdo Penn.  

    (Slightly off-topic: Brian Singer famously told Kevin Spacey  during filming of The Usual Suspects, “If we make you a cripple, you’ll win an Oscar for this.”  He did.)

    I understand that you’d prefer to see the word pulled even from satire, but I think it’s as much a legitimate tool for satire as anything else.  This may just be a fundamental rift between you and me: I don’t think any word is completely off-limits.  Context is everything, and the context here seems to clear it.  But I haven’t seen the film, and unlike Shriver I’m not going to presume to tell everyone how they should interpret it.

    I can think of a similar example, though (at least as far as the language goes).  One of my favorite movie lines of all time is from this scene in Idiocracy.  It uses “‘tard” pretty freely (as well as “fag”, which should make me bristle but doesn’t at all), but if you consider what Judge is trying to do, it’s really quite sharp.

    Is there a danger that other people will consider the word appropriate, and misuse it in everyday language?  Absolutely.  Do filmmakers have a responsibility to worry about those viewers?  I hope not.  If people adopt something so inappropriate, that speaks badly of them individually.  Shriver’s brand of misplaced hand-wringing sits really poorly with me, though I respect the work he does with the Special Olympics.

    (p.s. I say this as someone with a mentally challenged brother-in-law.  That doesn’t make me any more an expert on these issues than anyone else here, but I just want you to know that I’m not coming from a position of total ignorance, either.)

Comments have been disabled.