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Terri Mauro

Denying Our Children's Humanity for a Laugh

By July 18, 2011

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R WordPeriodically, some comedian or actor or singer or politician will say something that is demeaning to people with intellectual disabilities, and parents and other disability advocates will get up in arms about it, and maybe we'll get an apology, and for sure we'll get lots of comments about lightening up and free speech and political correctness. Sometimes we wonder if it's worth making a fuss if all it's going to do is give publicity to the offenders and make ourselves look like humorless scolds.

I heard about another of those instances this weekend through some posts on Google+. The website for GQ magazine had a feature on the worst-dressed cities in the U.S., and in dissing Boston the author let loose this line (as quoted by the blog Missfancypants's World): "but due to so much local in-breeding, Boston suffers from a kind of Style Down Syndrome, where a little extra ends up ruining everything."

The line has since been changed, and an apology may or may not be forthcoming. (UPDATE: Laura at Missfancypants's World has received one.) As with so many instances of the use of disability as an insult, I've wondered how the author and editor could possibly claim that no offense was intended. Inbreeding? Really? But I think the key is in that last little bit: When you see people with Down syndrome as ruined, you dehumanize them in a way that makes mocking them no more emotionally involving than mocking, say, a chair. And then you also get to mock the people who get upset about your chair mockery, because, man, it's just a chair! Can't we even insult chairs now?

It seems to me that lines like the one in that GQ article and in the Wonkette post from earlier this year can only be written and edited by people who take it as cultural common knowledge that individuals with intellectual disabilities aren't really human. I'd like to think they're in a minority on that, and that most people would deny it ... but consider how many not only continue to use the R-word but defend its use passionately. What if "it's just a word" doesn't mean that it's a unit of language that has become disconnected from any actual person, but that the individuals it's connected to aren't considered to be persons at all? Why would people be upset if I want to jokingly compare myself to a chair? Who does it hurt?

The dehumanizing of people with disabilities is something we can't overlook, no matter how humorless we seem. All the battles we fight, for education and for inclusion and for a home in the community and for medical care and for disability rights and for fair treatment are dependent on our communities valuing our children as human beings. Most of the arguments against those things have at their core the same belief as that GQ joke: These kids are ruined anyway. We can't waste our resources on them. We must prioritize un-ruined people. Stack those chairs in the back of the room.

Things are certainly better than they were in the days when individuals with intellectual disabilities were routinely institutionalized, but we're now at the point at which we're asking communities to put real money and real effort into inclusion, at a time when money and time are tight. Backsliding on rights is too easy. The repercussions of institutionalized disrespect are not funny at all.

None of this is exclusive to people with intellectual disabilities, by the way. I think most parents of children with special needs of any type can think of a time or many when it became obvious that their child was considered too damaged, too defective, too ruined to have his or her human rights taken seriously. The manifesto I posted a few weeks ago was all about having our children's humanity respected, regardless of the disability and inclusive of all, and I urge you to add your name and message if you haven't already.

Then take a look at the opportunities for protest I've started gathering on the forum. The GQ article is there, with information on how to contact the editor. Perhaps you've seen something that outrages you recently, something you wish all parents of kids with disabilities would protest, not just the smaller group of disability-specific advocates. Add it there, and let's start flexing our muscles.

We've got a lot of work to do.

For more reactions to the GQ article, read:

Image courtesy of Special Olympics

July 19, 2011 at 9:50 am
(1) Rachel says:

As a mother to a beautiful little girl with a chromosome disorder called 4q deletion syndrome (and autism) – I am deeply disturbed at GQ magazine’s gross disregard for what amounts to a rather large and WONDERFUL portion of our human population. Whether Down Syndrome or other intellectual/physical disabilities, nothing is more hurtful than to categorize the worth of a person by something that makes them unique – and likely FAR MORE lovely than the fool that wrote the article.

Thank you for highlighting this incident. It is important that we hold others accountable to every person’s right to be equal, respected and loved for who they are – not reduced to a descriptive term with a negative connotation.

July 26, 2011 at 4:11 am
(2) NorwayMom says:

You wrote:”Most of the arguments against those things have at their core the same belief as that GQ joke: These kids are ruined anyway. We can’t waste our resources on them. We must prioritize un-ruined people. Stack those chairs in the back of the room.”

Thanks for putting this in words, even though they’re so brutal they brought a tear to my eye. Here in Norway we’re also fighting for the rights of children and adults with disabilities. In developing nations, the situation is even worse. Here’s to all the trailblazers, whereever they are.

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