By Matthew Hennessey
What’s so funny about retards?
It seems we’ve been having this conversation for a while. We had it in 2008, when Robert Downey Jr.’s character in the film Tropic Thunder advised another character never to go “full retard.” We had it last year when President Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel, called his colleagues “f**ing retarded.” And we’re having it now that Jennifer Aniston called her style of dress “retarded” on Live with Regis and Kelly.
So, what gives? Jennifer Aniston is no dummy. I’m sure she knows the difference between laughing at someone and laughing with someone. Yet, like so many seemingly bright people, she has yet to absorb this simple message: Casual use of the words “retard” and “retarded” as synonyms for “stupid” and “uncoordinated” is painful to those who love someone with an intellectual or physical disability.
Why do we keep having this conversation? Why isn’t this message getting through?
I suspect it’s because we have been too polite. By “we,” I mean those of us who care about the disabled. I mean the parents, siblings, and friends of people with Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, and etc.
We let it slide sometimes. We hear friends, family, coworkers, and celebrities use these words and we keep quiet. For fear of seeming like sticks-in-the-mud, or simply to keep the peace, we don’t make a fuss. We don’t say, “You know I love you, but I hate that word.” We don’t say, “I’m really offended by that. Please don’t use that word anymore.”
But it does hurt. It does offend. And it is shameful that we have to keep going over this.
I give full credit to those, like Rahm Emmanuel, who realize they have done something wrong and apologize. Others, however, like Sarah Silverman, Ben Stiller, Rush Limbaugh, and Stephen Colbert, have suggested that we should lighten up, or that we should learn to laugh.
To which I ask again, “What’s so funny exactly?”
Is it the way we overlook the disability in our children and siblings, and focus on their true natures and capabilities? Is it our desire to have them attend regular schools? Is it our tireless advocacy on their behalf? Or is it our stubborn refusal to get the joke?
Here’s where I’m going with this: We’re not letting you off the hook anymore. We’re not going to let it slide. We’re not simply going to take a breath, count to ten, and try to ignore the bullying of those who can’t defend themselves.
You think it’s funny that I’m a little overweight, or that I try to get to bed by 8:30? Go ahead and laugh. I don’t mind. I can stand up for myself.
But my daughter can’t, and it is my mission to ensure that she doesn’t become a victim of casual cruelty. I am going to make sure that she lives a life of dignity.
So, no matter who you are, if you use that word in my presence, I’ll be getting in your face. I’ll be making you feel uncomfortable. I’ll be challenging you to defend your careless choice of words. I’ll be asking, “What’s so funny about retards?”
Because, try as I might, I just don’t get the joke.