President Obama’s throwaway line about his bowling score in the White House being like “the Special Olympics or something” has generated predictable reaction. From criticism for insensitivity on one hand to cries of “lighten up” are all over the place. And almost immediately after Obama’s appearance on the Leno show the White House was issuing an apology.
The best responses, with which I agree, come from a couple of insightful bloggers. Stephen Kuusisto at Planet of the Blind and William Peace at Bad Cripple forcefully make the point.
Sure, many people like the President explicitly endorse disability rights and the importance of laws to ensure those rights. But prejudice and discrimination against people with disabilities are deeply ingrained in our psyches, so much so that we are unconscious to it.
Quoting now from William Peace:
“The prejudice people with a disability encounter is different than the blatant civil rights violations women and people of color have experienced in the past and present. Disability prejudice takes many forms and at a deeply rooted symbolic level is not recognized as a civil rights violation. This is why the audience laughed at Obama's joke. People with a disability are inept physically and socially. Our complex and highly developed society is not designed to incorporate people with a disability. As my son has told me repeatedly "people without a disability rule the world".”
And Stephen Kuusisto:
“… when physical challenges are used as an analogy for able-bodied ineptitude the symbolic exchange values are skewed away from humor and toward bigotry. Like it or not President Obama must be held to a higher standard given his ardor for change and his well demonstrated sensitivity regarding people who have been historically marginalized in America.”
Obama’s so-called “gaffe” comes in the wake of reports of abuses against people with disabilities in state institutions in Texas ( see here) and against others in commercial businesses in Iowa (see here).
But, hey, don’t be so serious! Take it from comedian Craig Robinson, who’s in a new comedy called “Miss March.” Asked in an interview with the Chicago Tribune about the use of the word “retard” in the movie, “Q. … is that just a toxic word now? A: It does seem to be. You can see it from a parent's point of view. But the way they use it in the movie is funny. It's silly. It's not going out to hurt anybody. It's definitely not coming from an evil place; it's just coming from the way people talk. “