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Monday, March 23, 2009

Get Over it: But What are We Getting Over?

President Obama has taken some heat over his bad special olympics joke on the tonight Show. The criticism Obama has been subjected to has not resonated with the general public and most political commentators. The Wall Street Journal lamented the fact Obama was "getting lashed by the political correctness police". The Washington Times chimed in that Obama's joke was a "ginned-up controversy" from the forces of "political correctness. A quick google search will reveal thousands of articles have appeared in the last few days and based on a random sampling one could easily conclude people with a disability are humorless people. One theme comes through loud and clear: Get over it! It was a bad joke and nothing more than that. People with a disability cannot take a joke and are hyper sensitive.

I think I have a pretty good sense of humor. I also think disability can be very funny and more than one student has told me I am an entertaining lecturer. So, have I missed the point with regard to Obama's attempt at humor? In a word, no. Obama's joke, like the Saturday Live Skit lampooning Governor Patterson a few months ago, is not funny because it is based on a stereotype. The stereotypical assumption is that special olympics athletes are inept mentally and physically. This is not true. Some special olympians are gifted bowlers. How do I know this? Unlike most Americans I have watched the Special Olympics. My viewpoint is based on fact not an antiquated stereotype.

To date, I have come across just one insightful critique of the controversy Obama created with his so called joke. On the blog Wheelie Catholic Gary Karp commented on an entry entitled "The Question". Gary Karp lamented the fact that Obama's special olympic quip overran a key point he wanted to get across when he was able to ask the President a question about disability at a town hall meeting. Gary Karp is correct: Obama's joke about the special olympics has generated a lot of press most of which is not good for reasons I mentioned above. Karp wants the focus to be on whether a "true renaissance in the lives of people with disabilities" has taken place. In a remarkably astute observation Karp began his question to the President of the United States by stating:

Sir, my question regards the true renaissance that’s happening with people with disabilities. They are an emerging population — millions of people with more potential in capacity, more mobile, more educated, more healthy, more empowered technology, but still trapped in very, very old social models that see them in terms of tragedy and charity and need and care. And the modern population of people with disabilities simply does not fit that model.

Amen! Boy, I wish I could have been with Karp when he said this. I doubt I could have been as articulate, polite, and on point if given an opportunity to ask the President a question. Karp is correct about people with a disability as being an emerging population that are trapped by antiquated notions about the meaning of disability. In the last two decades more people with a disability are able to access an equal education and schools are becoming better at dealing with students that have cognitive and physical disabilities. But one thing has not changed as rapidly: the unemployment rate among people with a disability is staggeringly high. To me, this is a clear sign that people with a disability encounter an overwhelming social bias when they try to enter the work force. Given the choice between a qualified person with and without a disability I suspect most employers will choose the person without a disability. This is a significant problem and as the economy has nose dived in the last year the people who have struggled the most include those with a disability. Thus, Karp asked the President how will his economic stimulus package "release the emerging potential that's currently wasted and untapped?"

How indeed will the economic stimulus package empower people with a disability? This is a story I would like to see the Wall Street Journal cover. People bemoan the high rate of unemployment but no national outcry or debate has taken place with regard to why people with a disability are unemployed in overwhelming numbers. Instead, people with a disability that assert their civil rights are considered to be "difficult" or have a "chip on their shoulder". In the case of the special olympics joke people with a disability are considered "humorless" and "politically incorrect" when they object to baseless stereotypes. How exactly are people with a disability supposed to succeed? The mainstream media is quick to exploit great visuals of a person with a disability doing something "remarkable" that reinforces the well worn idea of people "overcoming: their disability. Yet no stories emerge about the ordinary person with a disability that simply wants to have a job, career, family and community in which they are treated equally. The reasons why this is so difficult is worthy of sober study.


AlisonHymes said...

When I was in my teens, feminists were always called humorless when they objected to stereotypical comments and ads etc. Then it was lesbians who were humorless when they wanted to be part of the feminist movement. I'm pretty sure this is a stage every group goes through when they start to speak up more loudly--the defensive call them humorless. In fact I just got called the equivalent of humorless this week on a comment thread in a newspaper for my response to a truly offensive and reprehensible comment. It wasn't at all funny. I'm getting used to it, I think it will get better in time.

Laura(southernxyl) said...

To me it is one more bit of evidence that Pres. Obama is a shallow person. I'm disappointed but I can't say that I'm surprised.

william Peace said...

Alison, You make a very interesting point. I too recall feminists and then lesbians were considered humorless. I did not like this not do I care for being the butt of bad jokes.

Laura, Like it or not, Obama is the first national politician to have a working knowledge of disability rights. I have no idea if Obama is a shallow man. I think he is as flawed as any other human or president. We all have strengths and weaknesses.

Laura(southernxyl) said...

Well, I'd like it if all national politicians had a working knowledge of disability rights, of course, so if Obama truly is the first I don't like that. (You don't consider the senators and congresspeople who came up with the ADA to be national politicians?)

But having a working knowledge is not the same as having a real understanding or a commitment. That is what I mean by "shallow". If he truly respected the disabled as fellow humans, I don't think he'd have used the Special Olympics as a tagline to make fun of his own incompetence at bowling. I just don't think it would have occurred to him to do it.

william Peace said...

Laura, Like the rest of the country, I don't think politicians give much thought to disability rights. I also do not think any president has thought deeply about disability rights. At the very least, Obama leads me to believe he is more familiar with disability rights than most people and politicians. But I truly do not know if this is true.

There is indeed a big difference between knowledge and commitment. Time will tell if Obama has the knowledge and commitment to disability rights. I see both positive and negative developments so far.

I see now what you meant about shallow. I tend to think Obama is quite smart but this may be a pro Columbia University bias on my part. As for his so called joke, it proves to me that disability based prejudice is deeply ingrained in our culture.

Terri said...

This is an excellent post. There is much more at stake and "getting over it" does not work for me.

And I was just thinking the same thing as commenter Alison, I have been working on a post about these things being all part of the process... Not the fun part. Very interesting.

Gary said...

Thanks, William, for responding on point amid all the noise. You got it right. As for Obama, he's moving in the right direction. Kareem is a GREAT advocate, knows the territory, and has direct access. That's huge. Our assignment now is to make the connections between disability and everyone's life. Not only that it could happen to them or someone they care about and they would want to have as much independence as possible. But that it costs all of us ACTUAL DOLLARS. Everyone. So it's not about anger over discrimination. It's about a reasonable and powerful case that good disability policy is good for everyone on every level. That's where I hope the conversation can go. That's where I try to point it in all that I do.

william Peace said...

Gary, Overall, I agree Obama is moving in the correct direction. He always acknowledges disability rights as civil rights. This is great and important. He supports the CCA. Again, this is great. But I also see troubling signs. On the campaign trail, many events were not accessible and his staff handles this poorly. Dale is indeed a good choice. Although not well known, Dale has a detailed understanding of disability issues. This was made clear in his recent interview with Disability Scoop. But is Dale the arts of disability special advisor? The White House is not at all clear on this issue and as I have noted no person can do two jobs well. Finally, bravo for your question. You came across perfectly at the town hall meeting.

Alicia (aka Dr. Mom) said...

This is the most amazing, well-articulated post on the issue I have read yet. I too had written a post - before I read yours - and i was coming at it from a bit of a different bent. But I think what we both agree on is that this is not an "Obama" issue - this is a SOCIETAL issue - and an issue regarding the VALUE society places (or the lack thereof) on differently-abled individuals. Derogatory language and inappropriate slang are not publically tolerated against any other group, in the work place, etc but they ARE tolerated and completely normalized in our daily vernacular when it comes to individuals with disabilities (especially cognitive/intellectual differences).

Anyway, SO impressed with your piece. You should seriously send it into a newspaper. I'm excited to read more on your blog!

william Peace said...

Alicia, Thanks for your very kind words. I read what you wrote and we are indeed on the same page so to speak. Have you ever read Robert Murphy's Body Silent? It is a bit dated now but a wondering moving text that delves deeply into the reasons why people with a disability are stigmatized and isolated. In fact I refer to the book as the Magna Charta of disability rights.