ENTERTAINMENT AND THE R-WORD

How many of us have paid money to sit in a theater so we could enjoy a movie when suddenly one of the characters in the film calls someone a “retard” or something “retarded“? It’s like getting punched in the stomach or having someone grab your heart and ring it out. I have known people who were actually watching a movie with a loved one who was intellectually challenged when this happened. How painful for everyone to have to hear that cruel insensitive slur. It is so thoughtless and so unnecessary that it defies logic why supposedly “creative” people in the movie and television industries still feel compelled to use that hateful word. 

Exactly where is the entertainment in using a word that you know causes others pain? How is that funny? What does that say about you as a human being that you are willing to hurt innocent people in order to get some kind of cheap laugh? Are you so desperate for attention that you try to lift yourself up at the expense of others? Is that what you think is required to be noticed? And what about the audience members who actually find this word amusing? Why do they enjoy seeing other human beings reduced to some kind of archaic stereotype that was never true to begin with? When a performer uses this word and a person reacts to it in an inappropriate way they are both completely wrong, insensitive and utterly clueless. We tend to put anyone who makes their living by being creative on a pedestal but using this type of language quickly reveals that they do not deserve adulation or our respect. 

Individuals who are developmentally disabled have money to spend on entertainment just like anyone else, but they don’t want to be watching a movie or TV program and be insulted. They are well aware of the connotation that word carries. They know they are being singled out for abuse. They know they are being disrespected as a human being. No one wants to be embarrassed or feel humiliated because of something that is beyond their control, but more importantly, they know they deserve respect and dignity. They rightfully believe that they do not deserve to be the punch line of some poorly written joke. 

It is difficult to understand why this particular segment of the population is still singled out for verbal abuse when other groups are not. Jokes about ethnicity, religious faiths and sexual preferences are curtailed because of the backlash from society at large. And yet the same comedian who wouldn’t dare make a crude joke about a small child who is black or a teenager who is gay thinks nothing of insulting and hurting an innocent person who is intellectually challenged. What is the difference? Where is the distinction? When you intentionally hurt anyone it is wrong. To pick on a group of people who want nothing more than to be excepted as equal human beings is inexcusable. 

While it is true that writers and performers have the right to free speech, we also have the right to protest what they say and, more importantly, we have the right to defend our friends and loved ones who may not be able to speak up for themselves. Perhaps it seems easier to pick on a group that is perceived to be unable to defend itself in the same way as other minorities, but that doesn’t have to be the case. A large percentage of those with intellectual disabilities are more than capable off voicing their displeasure at being verbally attacked and degraded for no reason, and for those who may have difficulty giving voice to their feelings we can act as their advocates to ensure that their opinion of this type of language is given quickly and firmly. 

If entertainers feel compelled to single out those with intellectual challenges for bullying and disrespect we must respond in kind and single them out for their limited thinking and poor behavior. We owe it to ourselves and to the disabled community at large to become a kinder more considerate society. Everyone must feel included in life. No one should be left out. Every person is an equal member of the human family. An individual who lives in a group home and is employed at a workshop has the exact same rights as an entertainer who makes millions of dollars each year by telling jokes that hinder the ability of 3% of the population to find acceptance in their communities. 

Many people look up to celebrities and think of them as examples and role models – so what message does it convey to the impressionable when they throw around the R-word without regard or remorse for the people they are hurting? Individuals with a public platform, whether they like it or not, have a responsibility to behave in a way that does not harm others. What is important to understand is that language conveys attitudes. If you are willing to make a joke using the R-word you are demonstrating your complete lack of understanding for the men and women who have struggled for decades to have the right not to be insulted for the life they are living as best they can. 

Some will say that words are not harmful but that is not true, and freedom of speech does not allow you to say just anything. For example, you cannot verbally threaten the life of an elected official no matter what you think about their political positions. You may claim they are “only words” but those words can get you arrested. In the workplace you are not allowed to use offensive language against any group or gender. If you are convinced you have that right you will soon be looking for other employment. So why is it permissible to degrade individuals who had no more choice in being born with Down syndrome or Fragile X syndrome than a person has in choosing their race or sex? 

Fortunately, however, there is one thing we do have a choice about and that is how we treat other human beings. We can make the decision to accept people as they are. We can learn to appreciate each person for themselves and not for what they can or cannot do. We can learn to value the humanity that every person on earth represents. We can understand that no one has the right to judge or label anyone else. You would not want that to happen to you or your loved ones and it is certainly not right for you to do it to others. 

Perhaps it would be helpful for those who are quick to use the R-word to take just a moment to be thankful that they even have the power of speech. Not everyone is so fortunate. Millions of people would love to be able to express themselves clearly and easily, but that is not their fate. If an individual, who has struggled their entire life just to be understood, was suddenly to have the gift of articulate speech it is difficult to believe that they would waste a single word hurting others for no reason. I believe they would express as much love for their fellow human beings as they possible could. They would want everyone to know that they are appreciated and respected. They want to tell everyone how much they love being alive, and they would want to communicate about the truly important things that matter in life. 

The reality of life dictates that anyone of us, even a celebrity, could join the ranks of the intellectually disabled at any moment. A stroke, an aneurism or brain trauma from an accident could strike any of us without warning. If you were left valiantly struggling to understand the world around you – after your brain had been compromised – what would it feel like if your humanity was dismissed? How would you react if others suddenly looked down on you and thought of you as less than an equal? How would you deal with the overwhelming frustration if the power of speech was stripped away from you and now the ability to verbally defend yourself was no longer an option? How would you deal with the unfair judgments and the lack of compassionate understanding displayed by individuals when you went out in public? How would you deal with the stares and the whispers of total strangers……

How much would it hurt the first time someone was cruel enough to refer to you with the R-word?

 

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