Friday, March 20, 2009
Let me begin by saying that I really do have a sense of humor about the truly funny aspects of my son's disabilities. He has a wicked sense of humor himself, and some of his attempts to navigate the world on his own terms are unintentionally hilarious. We often find ourselves doubled over with laughter at the things he does in situations that people outside of our family might find puzzling or even offensive. I thought The Ringer was hilarious, and I thought there was so much brilliant comedy in Tropic Thunder that I was willing to overlook the fact that Ben Stiller's (to me) mildly offensive portrayal of cognitive disability simply wasn't funny.
But President Obama's comment that his less-than-stellar bowling skills are appropriate for Special Olympics really troubles me. I've commented before about the compelling lesson about true dignity with respect to body image that Special Olympics athletes could teach us all. I think President Obama might be well-served to consider what he might learn from these athletes about true dignity with respect to athletic prowess. President Obama is clearly a man who takes great pride in his athletic ability. He must have been embarrassed during last year's campaign at being shown to be less than accomplished at bowling. But to think it appropriate to attempt to address that personal humiliation with an insensitive "joke" like this, as President of the United States, on a late-night talk show, suggests a fundamental lack of respect for people with disabilities.
I realize that people with disabilities do not represent a large segment of the voting public. Among all of the protected classes in our large panoply of civil rights laws, they are the most vulnerable, along dozens of fronts -- in the battle for resources, for the right to be born, and for the acceptance of their equal dignity as human beings. Remarks like Obama's (and Al Gore's "extra-chromosome crowd" joke) would never be tolerated if they were made at the expense of women or racial minorities. An apology and the inevitable photo-ops that I'm sure are going to follow of Obama bowling at the White House with a group of Special Olympians would not be enough to address the suspicions raised by the remark if it had been made about any other protected class. The fact that these sorts of remarks are publicly voiced by presidents and presidential candidates demonstrates the shallowness of the commitment our liberal society really has to the equal dignity of people with disabilities.
Ironically, my son went on a field trip yesterday that he had been looking forward to for a long time. He went bowling with his entire special education class. He had a wonderful time. Though I wasn't there, I'm certain he, his classmates, and all his teachers laughed almost the whole time.
(By the way, tomorrow is World Down Syndrome Day. Celebrate!!!)