Real quick before we dive in: 1. Make sure you're registered to vote. 2. Call your reps and get them to pass the Heroes Act. 3. Call all the Louisville lines and demand justice for Breonna Taylor. Okay, now on to today's thought.
On July 26th the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) celebrated its thirtieth birthday. NPR's Throughline ran a great segment on it and, after listening through it, and in honor of this milestone, I want everyone to stop for a second and really, REALLY think and reflect on their own actions, behaviors, biases, and assumptions.
First, a little history and context:
Nowadays, my rapid-fire list of his diagnoses, which usually gets people to stop with their "Oh, I have a cousin with Autism! What's your brother have?" tone (more on that in a minute), is: "Autism Cerebral Palsy Kabuki Makeup Syndrome Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome and Congenital Myopathy of Muscle Fiber One." (Imagine me saying that at the same speed as the legal disclaimer at the end of a radio commercial and you'll get the idea.)
I grew up looking after and caring for my brother; he requires round-the-clock care, and that doesn't just mean his physical needs, it also means that someone has to deal with the world around him and adapt it to be more accessible and less discriminatory for him to live in.
Legally, the ADA was the first big step in moving the country in that direction (it's at least one step in a better direction than the systems of eugenics and forced sterilization that this country got into well before the Nazis started slaughtering people because of their disabilities; California even led the pack on that front from 1907-1970 with over 20,000 forced sterilizations). The ADA put the onus on businesses, establishments, and society at large to adapt, rather than expecting, for example, wheelchair users to either just "figure out how to get up and down the stairs" or simply not come in at all.
We reluctantly accept the thing and she walks away on the verge of tears, just so overwhelmed by the experience of seeing a boy in a wheelchair and his brother beside him eating a corndog.
(Also, quick aside, did y'all know that "overwhelmed" means the exact same thing as "whelmed"? Truly, look up the etymology; the "over" bit is entirely redundant. So, the next time someone makes the "can you ever just be 'whelmed'?" joke, you can tell them, "Well, yes, you can, but it would mean that you're experiencing the state of being that you assume you'd be experiencing if you were feeling, by your definition, 'overwhelmed.' Just 'chill,' bruh.")
Okay, this one's less of an anecdote and more of an account of the fact that I've had the exact same conversation about, oh I don't know, ten thousand times in my life. It goes like this:
THEM: That's retarded.
ME: Come on, man, don't use that word.
THEM: Dude, stop being so overly sensitive about everything.
You get the idea.
Okay. So, here are the issues at work here, and this is where I REALLY need y'all to do some introspection:
Would you walk up to a pair of siblings, one of whom is white, the other of whom is, I don't know, Korean, and tell the white one how beautiful it is that they're out in public together?
Would you still, in this day and age, call something "fruity," or "gay" if you didn't like it?
Would you, when introduced to a black person, immediately say to them, "Oh, hi! My neighbor's black, too!"?
I'm'a guess, if you're reading this, the answer to all of the above is, "No." (And if it's "yes," that's something else for you to investigate.)
So, here's the point:
When you treat people with disabilities with pity, and as though it's an achievement to simply be seen outside in public, that's discrimination.
When you lump all people with disabilities together with the "I have a black friend, too!" tone, that's discrimination.
And for fuck's sake, if you are using any variation or permutation of what we call "The R-Word," then in all likelihood, it's goddamn discrimination.
And you'll have to forgive me for getting frustrated here; I've been doing this dance for over 25 years and I truly CANNOT believe that I still have to say this: When you use the R-word as a pejorative expression, you are explicitly stating that anyone with an intellectual disability is undesirable and deserving of ridicule and disparagement (or, gee, I don't know, death or sterilization. See: the bits of American History your AP U.S. class in high school left out). And here's the thing: I know that that's the truth, because all the synonyms that you could replace that word with when you use it in a derogatory way are negative: stupid, shitty, fucked up, worthless, unwanted, disgusting, repulsive, dismissible, etc.
THEM: "But– But– But–"
No. No "buts." That's what you're doing whether you realize it or not. And it's discrimination. Period.
That said, here's where it gets dicey.
Bonus Anecdote 3: Satire.
Satire is a tricky world. When done effectively, it skewers those who are abusing their power like literary or journalistic surgery. And, again, when done effectively, the conscious use of slurs can be extremely effective. Note: the CONSCIOUS use (i.e. Season 1, Episode 21 of the show Speechless).
When done sloppily, however, satire can act like a kid with a sawed-off shotgun in a candy shop; sure, the kid is gonna hit their target, but they're also gonna hit a lot of bystanders who had nothing to do with anything (i.e. Tropic Thunder, Something About Mary, Mean Girls, this list goes on forever).
Why the flying fuck would anyone need to perpetuate its use this way? To what end? Why did the creator of this image NEED to adjacently disparage people with disabilities? Why was it necessary for the satire to include "libtard"? Wouldn't "liberal snowflakes" have worked just as well and NOT used an already marginalized group as cannon fodder? How was it necessary to think, "Well, the r*****s won't get up in arms about this, and even if they do, who cares? It's fine! We can dehumanize them adjacently while trying to satirize the white nationalist right"?
Hang tight, I'm gonna answer the question for you:
No one thought that. Because the creator of this image didn't think for one second about its impact on the disabled community. That's how. That's why. Whoever it was who made this image did not even register the fact that "libtard" is a portmanteau that inherently degrades, dehumanizes, and dismisses the basic human worth of people with disabilities.
This sloppy, inadvertent, ignorant lateral bullying of the disabled community HAS. TO. STOP.
It's as simple as that.
Stop the pitying looks.
Stop the teary admiration for the "bravery to be seen in public."
Stop dismissing someone's needs just because they're different than yours.
Stop using disabled people as a foil for all things you don't like.
And for all the gods' sakes STOP. USING. THE R-WORD.
"Retard," "fucktard," "libtard," "if you're not a freakin' tard" (Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog), I don't care what variation on the theme you pick, just stop it.
(And a quick side note: I brought this up to the friend on whose Facebook wall I saw the image. She and I had a really great discussion about it.)
So. To sum up:
The ADA has been around for thirty years now. In that time, a lot of progress has been made. Hell, Obama even signed Rosa's Law in 2010 which states that any federal documentation that has previously used the term "mental retardation" be changed to "intellectual disability," and the same new terminology be used going forward.
But there is SO MUCH more progress that is needed.
And it starts with individual people.
It starts with the way you and your friends think, speak, act, and interact with others.
So, please, truly, take some time and reflect. If you've done any of this stuff in the past, that's innocent ignorance rearing its head. It's okay. Don't beat yourself up. You can't go back and change what's done.
But going forward, there's just no excuse anymore.
Catch yourself in the act. Work to reprogram your vocabulary and assumptions. And if one of your pals blurts out that something's "retarded," call them out. This community needs real allies, now more than ever. And much in the way that communities of color have been screaming, "stop making us do the emotional labor to correct your (white people's) behavior," the disabled community – those with disabilities as well as their parents, children, siblings, care providers, family, and friends – cannot be expected to do all the work.
Happy Birthday, ADA. Here's hoping the next thirty years see these changes continue.
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