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Posted in Attitudes to disability, Language by Matt at WelcometoIllinois on February 24, 2010

Mother Superior jumped the gun

Posted in Attitudes to disability, Language by Matt at WelcometoIllinois on February 19, 2010

Sarah Palin, the self-appointed Mother Superior of Down’s syndrome, has been at it again, this time describing an episode of Family Guy featuring a character with Down’s syndrome that made reference to being her daughter as “another kick in the gut”.

I haven’t seen the Family Guy episode, it has not aired in the UK yet as far as I’m aware, but I have watched the clips on YouTube and I just don’t get what Palin is upset about.

So a character with Down’s syndrome states that her mother is the former governor of Alaska – big deal. How is that insulting to people with Down’s syndrome, or Trig or Sarah Palin? Am I missing something here? Seriously, I fail to see how this is mocking Trig Palin or in any way damaging to people with special needs, and I’ve just watched Palin trying to explain it herself

Even the Down syndrome girl song is extremely tame by Family Guy standards, and as Logan at Disposable writes, from what I have seen the show pretty much normalised Down’s syndrome.

Palin’s criticism appears to suggest that featuring a character with Down’s syndrome on this sort of show is, by definition, offensive (unless it is satire of course), while some of the reports supporting Palin’s view also appear to have jumped to conclusions.

“Comedic mimicry of retarded people is obnoxious,” states the Gawker. Which is true except, there’s that R word again, and besides – where was the mimicry?

The character in question was played by Andrea Fay Friedman – an actress with Down’s syndrome, who had this to say: “I thought the line was very funny. I think the word is ‘sarcasm.'”

Friedman also said this:

“In my family we think laughing is good. My parents raised me to have a sense of humor and to live a normal life. My mother did not carry me around under her arm like a loaf of French bread the way former Gov. Palin carries her son Trig around, looking for sympathy and votes.”

Arf! Now that is a kick in the gut.

Sarah Palin is a f—ing hypocrite

Posted in Attitudes to disability, Language, Politics by Matt at WelcometoIllinois on February 8, 2010

Rahm Emanuel has been rightly criticized for his description of liberals activists as “f—ing retarded”, including a call from Sarah Palin for him to be fired as White House chief of staff.

“Just as we’d be appalled if any public figure of Rahm’s stature ever used the “N-word” or other such inappropriate language, Rahm’s slur on all God’s children with cognitive and developmental disabilities — and the people who love them — is unacceptable, and it’s heartbreaking.”

That’s just what you’d expect when it comes to the self-styled “friend and advocate” of special-needs families. Of course the fact that Emanuel’s comment enabled Palin to criticize her political opponents had nothing to do with it.

Palin also appeared to have taken a dim view of Rush Limbaugh’s repeated use of the word “retard” in discussing the Emanuel controversy on his radio show.

Here’s some edited highlights of Limbaugh’s “satire” for those that missed it. The full transcript is also available.

  • “But our politically correct society is acting like some giant insult’s taken place by calling a bunch of people who are “retards,” “retards.””
  • “So now there’s going to be a meeting, there’s going to be a “Retard” Summit at the White House.”
  • “Obama is taking a short bus, little yellow bus full of “retards” — “F-ing retards” — to Las Vegas for the weekend.”
  • Limbaugh was clearly taking the opportunity to draw attention to the inappropriate language used by Emanuel, but his obvious revelry in doing so suggests, and the following discussion with a caller to the show demonstrates, that he simply does not get it.

    CALLER: The reason they were so offensive is because by using the term “retarded” or “retards” as a term of opprobrium or derision is insulting to all persons with mental disability… I just felt as though your comment, it seemed to me to underline the idea that the insult was to the Democrats, and it’s not, the insult is to the people with disabilities.

    RUSH: No, no, no. I know the insult is to retarded people but those are not my words.

    Either way, as Palin’s spokesperson stated “it doesn’t matter who says the “r” word: it should no longer be part of our lexicon”.

    Except if the person who says its happens to be an influential opinion leader in the conservative movement, it would seem. “Rush Limbaugh was using satire,” said Down’s syndrome’s very own “Mother Superior” on Sunday.

    “I didn’t hear Rush Limbaugh calling a group of people whom he did not agree with “f’ing retards.” And we did know that Rahm Emanuel — it’s been reported — did say that. There’s a big difference there.”

    She’s right, there is a big difference between someone using an off-hand remark, albeit a highly inappropriate one, in a private conversation and then apologizing for doing so, and someone repeatedly using a phrase they apparently understand to be offensive in order to score cheap political points.

    The s-word

    Posted in Language, Learning disability by Matt at WelcometoIllinois on April 3, 2009

    I was too busy to comment here about Barack Obama’s description of his bowling as “like the special olympics”. Needless to say it was a real gaffe for anyone in a position of authority, let alone a President, but given how liberally phrases such as this are thrown around I think the Special Olympics had the right response in seeing it as an opportunity to educate.

    I was reminded of the issue while reading Michael Bérubé’s post this morning about discussing the issue with some students at LSU, one of whom “said that she’d been hearing not merely that this should be a “teaching moment” with regard to cognitive disability but also that we should take the opportunity to revisit the term “Special” itself, in order to ask whether the word hasn’t become the kind of default euphemism that needs to be retired along with the R-word.”

    I’ve previously mentioned my distaste for “special” as a euphemism and while I would agree with Michael that I don’t expect the Special Olympics movement to respond favourably to that suggestion, I would also agree with the student’s suggestion “that Special Olympians themselves take the lead in determining the appropriate language for cognitive disability.”

    Of course that’s easier said than done but I do think there should be more direction given as to how words should be used correctly, rather than just advocating outright banning. It is perfectly possible, although perhaps not advisable, to use the word ‘retarded’ to legitimately describe a delay in cognitive ability.

    It is also sometimes legitimate to describe people with cognitive disabilities as ‘special’ but to apply it as a blanket term to describe all people with cognitive disabilities is condescending an just as dehumanizing as describing them as ‘retarded’ in my opinion.

    Spread the word

    Posted in Attitudes to disability, Language by Matt at WelcometoIllinois on March 31, 2009

    Print I’m not going to say much about this as it’s not a word that’s actually used much over in the UK, and I do think some people have a tendency to get carried away about it. However, clearly the use of the word “retard” in a derogatory manner is to be discouraged, and in that spirit I encourage you to take a look at the Spread The Word website.

    Taking “special” out of the Special Olympics

    Posted in Ability, Language by Matt at WelcometoIllinois on January 17, 2009

    Putting aside my distaste for the use of “special” as a euphemism, these adverts for the forthcoming Special Olympics World Winter Games are interesting in highlighting the similarities between the Olympics and Special Olympics.

    Of course the standards are not the same, but the achievements are just as great.


    BBC breached code over use of ‘the r word’

    Posted in Attitudes to disability, Language, Media by Matt at WelcometoIllinois on December 9, 2008

    The Independent reports that the BBC has been found to have breached the Broadcasting Code after a US comedian described Sarah Palin’s son, who has Down’s Syndrome, as “retarded”.

    While I support the campaign to reduce the use of the word “retard” I have also previously argued that its use can be justified by context.

    Taking a look at Ofcom’s ruling it is clear that wasn’t the word itself that was found to have breached the code but the context in which it was used, and the BBC presenter’s failure to apologise:

    “Ofcom notes that the comedian made references to individuals as “retarded”. Research indicates that views on this term are split. It is considered by some to be highly offensive, while others are less concerned by its use.

    Ofcom acknowledges that BBC 6 Music attracts a predominantly adult audience and that regular listeners who are familiar with the irreverent style of its presenters and guests may not necessarily find the use of words such as “retard” offensive.

    When dealing with generally accepted standards, the Code refers specifically to offence that may be caused by discriminatory treatment and language based on disability. In this case, the word “retarded” was used in a particularly derogatory manner. Further, references to Down’s Syndrome were also made in a clearly offensive way. First, a child with Down’s Syndrome was described as retarded. Second, there was a highly offensive comment which described Down’s Syndrome as a form of punishment by God. Both of these, in Ofcom’s opinion, went well beyond generally accepted standards and the audience’s expectations for this programme. In this case in was clear that the context did not justify these offensive comments.

    Ofcom was also concerned that during the broadcast the presenter did not give what it considered to be a sufficient reprimand or apology, which could have served to reduce the offence.”

    The comments were made by American comedian Doug Stanhope, on a digital channel, BBC 6 Music, and prompted one complaint, according to Ofcom. If you want to know precisely what he said, take a look at the ruling.

    The R Word Campaign

    Tropic Thunder redux

    Posted in Attitudes to disability, Campaigns, Language, Media by Matt at WelcometoIllinois on October 6, 2008

    I promised some time ago that, unlike many of the bloggers writing about Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder, I intended to see the film the first chance I got so I could make up my own mind about whether it is offensive to people with disabilities.

    What with one thing and another, today was the first chance I got as my wife allowed me the decadence of an afternoon at the cinema. The initial response is that I cannot understand what the fuss was all about.

    I previously wrote that “The protesters against Tropic Thunder appear to be either misunderstanding or willfully ignoring the fact that Tropic Thunder is a satire in order to get their point across” and that I couldn’t “shake the feeling that this was a protest looking for a target.”

    Having seen the film I am more convinced than ever that this was the case and that a protest was the wrong strategy. I couldn’t help thinking about the claim made by David Tolleson (executive director of the National Down Syndrome Congress) that he came out of the cinema having seen Tropic Thunder “feeling like I had been assaulted.”

    The claim is as laughable as anything in the film. The target of the jokes is so clearly Hollywood, as opposed to people with disabilities, that I believe you would have to have a huge chip on your shoulder to think otherwise.

    One of the main issues protesters had against the film was the portrayal by Stiller’s  character (an action film actor trying to be taken seriously) of Simple Jack. In this article from The Guardian, David Tolleson described the portrayal as “shockingly awful”, missing the fact that that was, in fact, the point. The satirical portrayal is also criticised within Tropic Thunder itself.

    Having seen the film I find it hard to believe that those leading the protests that had also seen it did not understand that Simple Jack was satirical portrayal of an actor playing someone with intellectual disabilities, as opposed to the sort of ridiculous portrayal of disability seen in other films.

    Within the context of Tropic Thunder Simple Jack makes sense, although I can understand that in isolation it would appear offensive. It would appear that DreamWorks made a big mistake with the viral campaign based on Simple Jack that kicked off the protests against Tropic Thunder, and was right to pull it.

    The protests could, and perhaps should, have ended there and some of the other complaints against Tropic Thunder are difficult to fathom.

    In The Guardian article, Tolleson describes “a segment of the film involving Stiller and Matthew McConaughey. When Stiller’s character says he wants to adopt a child, McConaughey looks at a photo of himself with his arm around a boy vacantly staring into space – clearly meant to have an intellectual disability – and says: ‘At least you get to choose yours. I’m stuck with mine’.”

    Like others I do not think it was clear that the boy was meant to have an intellectual disability. In the short period of time that the boy is on the screen I would suggest it is impossible to know for sure if he is supposed to have some sort of disability or just be uncool and uninterested.

    If one assumes that protesters against the film understood that it was satire then one has to assume then that they chose to ignore it in order to draw attention to the campaign to eradicate the use of the term “retard”.

    That is an honourable campaign and I agree that the word retard should be used sparingly in the media. The word is used many times within Tropic Thunder, but almost exclusively entirely within a single conversation between the characters player by Stiller and Robert Downey Jnr.

    I previously argued that its use in this conversation was justified by the context of the characters and the storyline, and this is definitely the case. From that perspective the repeated use in the conversation is much more justifiable isolated use in other films for shock value or to get a cheap laugh.

    I fully understand why those that protested against Tropic Thunder are concerned about the portrayal of disability in movies and in reducing the use of the word retard and wish to bring their concerns to the attention of the film industry, but I maintain that in Tropic Thunder they picked the wrong film to protest against.

    Reconsidering “the r word”

    Posted in Language, Media by Matt at WelcometoIllinois on August 13, 2008



    retard (plural retards)
    1. retardation; delay
    2. (offensive slang) a person with mental retardation
    3. (offensive slang) a stupid person, or one who is slow to learn


  • (retardation): delay, hold-up, retardation
  • (person with mental retardation): idiot, tard (offensive), imbecile (disused medical term), mental deficient (legal term), moron (disused medical term), person with learning difficulties
  • (stupid person): See synonyms for “fool” in WikiSaurus
  • The protesters against Tropic Thunder have certainly made their mark – it was the lead item on the BBC’s entertainment news last night, and while I remain sceptical about the merits of a protest I’ve been giving more thought to the word “retard” and its use in popular culture.

    I mentioned previously that I was largely indifferent to it given that the word is rarely used in Britain but the more I have read about reaction to the film the more I understand why people have a significant problem with it and the fact that its use in film perpetuates its use in society.

    The R Word Campaign

    Clearly “retard” is as offensive as most of the synonyms listed above and its use in society is not to be tolerated. However, I am also convinced that the description of the term as “hate speech” or the suggestion that it encapsulates “an entire history of marginalization, neglect, murder and abuse” is ludicrous exaggeration.

    I maintain that when used in context within film the use of the word “retard” is justified, as is the use of many other words that are not acceptable in polite conversation (and I continue to suspect that its use within Tropic Thunder is an example of that context). But I agree that the term should also be used as sparingly as possible.

    The protesters against Tropic Thunder appear to be either misunderstanding or willfully ignoring the fact that Tropic Thunder is a satire in order to get their point across. I just can’t shake the feeling that this was a protest looking for a target and that the protesters are wide of the mark.

    If the ultimate goal is changing attitudes towards “the r word” in wider society then I support that goal but I’m unconvinced that demonising Ben Stiller is the way to go about it.

    Protesting the Tropic Thunder protest

    Posted in Language, Media by Matt at WelcometoIllinois on August 11, 2008

    It seems that the controversy surrounding Tropic Thunder will result in an official boycott of the film by disability support groups in the US.

    About the picture.

    In my opinion this would be a huge mistake for a couple of reasons:

    1/ The protest may well backfire spectacularly
    One of the precedents for the proposed protest cited by the media is the campaign against The Last Temptation of Christ, which TheCelebrityCafe describes as “one of the most successful movie boycotts”. If the definition of successful is turning an art house film based on a little-known novel into a profit-generating international blockbuster then yes, the boycott was a success.

    Witness this report from 1988: “The film’s opponents have admitted that their strategy of parades and protests backfired last weekend when the movie sold $401,000 worth of tickets, an average of $44,000 per theater, sold out many shows and set a record at the Century City Cineplex in Los Angeles.”

    2/ The protest may be counter-productive
    I cannot believe that the representatives of the Special Olympics, the Arc of the United States, the National Down Syndrome Congress, and the American Association of People with Disabilities which are proposing this protest really do not understand that the portrayal of disability in the film is used as a tool to lampoon actors and Hollywood rather than people with disabilities.

    I understand they have a problem with the use of the term “retard” in this film (more on that in a minute) but references to “hate speech” and David C. Tolleson’s comment that “I came out [of the film] feeling like I had been assaulted” are gross exaggeration that do nothing to promote the interests of people with disability and may even lead the disability rights groups to be seen in a negative light. I for one object to being told what it is I should find offensive.

    3/ The response is an over-reaction
    The biggest problem I have with the proposed protest is that it is being called for by people before they have even seen the film and come to their own conclusions.

    “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,” writes Special Olympic chairman Timothy Shriver. “By all accounts, it is an unchecked assault on the humanity of people with intellectual disabilities — an affront to dignity, hope and respect.”

    If you are prepared to accept this ill-informed exaggeration as gospel go ahead and protest. Otherwise, consider the point that there may be better ways of responding.

    4/ What is the point of the protest?
    If it is to draw attention to the misuse of the word “retard” then there are better ways of going about it. I accept the point that the use of “retard” in film accentuates its use in society (although I maintain that when used in context it is entirely appropriate if it is the term that a character would use – just as many offensive terms to describe other minorities are justified by context).

    The ARC’s action alert (Word doc) proposes either a national boycott or an education action “to use the release of this film as a teachable moment for the public, while recognizing the film’s offensiveness and the industry’s response”.

    Surely this is a better method of fulfilling the aims of the proposed protest. It is not just Tropic Thunder that makes repeated use of the word. On a flight home from the US at the weekend I noticed the word had been hamfistedly edited out of the film Kevin Spacey film 21 (where it was also used, incidentally to discuss Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man) and replaced with “reject”* .

    So why stop at Tropic Thunder? Why not protest every firm in which the word is used? Alternatively the protesters could use this moment as an opportunity to engage sensibly and calmly with the studios to educate them on why the use of the word is considered offensive.

    *Also isn’t “reject” just as offensive as a sweeping generalisation? If “retard” is to be outlawed then what approved terms should the film industry be using instead?