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Friday, March 20, 2009

Obama and the Special Olympics: An Off-hand Remark?

Obama is the first sitting president to appear on the Tonight Show. As expected, Obama was articulate and funny. Obama's banter with host Jay Leno focused on the economy. Some of the questions asked were a bit more hard edged than I expected given the fact the Tonight Show is designed to entertain. I was impressed with Obama until Leno asked him about his bowling skills--apparently this was a running joke during the campaign. Obama stated he had recently bowled 129 and the audience laughed. Leno then joked "that's very good Mr. President". Obama's replied:

"It's like -- it was like Special Olympics, or something. (Laughter.)"

This comment was not funny nor was I amused. Two thought sprang to my mind: First, someone from the Obama administration would quickly put out a press release stating that he did not intend to demean or offend the Special Olympics and those that participate (this is exactly what the White House did). Second, was I a humorless person for thinking the President's joke was not funny? Afterall, the audience thought Obama's joke was very funny. A good nights sleep has not changed my mind. Obama's joke was not funny and highlights an inherent bias against all people with a disability in American society. This bias, a gross and largely unrecognized civil rights problem, is part of the American social structure. I know this because I encounter bigotry and ignorance daily. The fact that the average American does not wake up in the morning and think I am going to purposely discriminate against people with a disability is no excuse for civil rights violations that abound. 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".

If people with a disability were truly equal laws such as the ADA would not be needed. All people, those with and those without a disability, would demand inclusion and equality. Instead, access is granted to people with a disability because it is the law but such access is not valued. Inclusion is perceived to be a choice and a costly one at that--a dollar amount is tied to disability rights. Based on my experience people will acknowledge that inclusion is needed but are willing to do no more than that. Disability rights scholars call this ableism, an awkward word I try not to use because few people understand its meaning. Essentially, ableism is the belief that people with a disability are inherently different and inferior to all those deemed "normal". I am not normal because I use a wheelchair. My life thus has less value. People that participate in the special olympics are not normal because they have a cognitive disability. This is no laughing matter. Thus Obama's joke is not an "unfortunate remark" or an "off-hand comment". Obama's so called joke revealed just how ingrained disability prejudice is in our society.

Mainstream news outlets such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and ABC News have mentioned Obama's comments about the special olympics in passing. Tabloids have also mentioned Obama's special olympic comment and used it to harpoon disability rights. For instance, Newsday, a local New York newspaper, published "Barack Obama, Jay Leno and the Special Olympic LIne". According to Newsday, "without fail Obama haters will spin this into something it's not... we won't delve deep into how this will divide the nation into partisan camps or how "pundits" will remark that while people are losing their jobs left and right, their president can mock handicapped kids on national television. (Again, we're fairly certain you'll hear something silly to that effect)". I don't think Obama's comment was silly nor am I an Obama hater. Instead, I am disheartened that Obama, the first nationally known politician with an understanding of disability rights, would make such a statement. The oppression disabled people experience in this country is no laughing matter. People who are the butt of a joke don't get a job--if you doubt me just ask one of the 70% of disabled people that are currently unemployed. People who are the butt of a joke don't get an education. People that are the butt of a joke have the funding for group homes reduced. People who are the butt of jokes are not integrated into our communities. People who are the butt of jokes end up in institutions. People that are the butt of jokes are just that--a joke, a human being denied their humanity.

9 comments:

FridaWrites said...

I missed the show and the stories. That is disappointing.

I was horrified when we did a tour of a cave that one of the guides made jokes about pushing someone off a cliff who was in a wheelchair and how outrageously funny people found it. I think 'humor' like this can definitely be used against us or prevent people from really seeing us.

stothers said...

Great comments on ths topic. Quoted you on my own spot, that is stothers.blogspot.com

Terri said...

Bill, right on the mark. It is discouraging when we run face to face into just how deep this prejudice runs... but now everyone knows. Let's hope we can leverage this knowledge into something...

Tara Marie said...

Thank you for your words.....

starr said...

Forwarded from Emma Sage! Eloquently and elegantly said, I'm also linking it from my blog. Thank you so much. http://starrlife.wordpress.com

william Peace said...

Wow, it seems I hit a chord with my entry. Thanks for the kind words.
Strothers, I like your blog, thanks for the link. By the way, your Tiny Tim essay is a classic essay in my estimation.
Terri, I am not sure we have gained any sort of leverage. Bigotry takes time and education to overcome. Adults in my estimation are unwilling learn and change their views. For me, the hope is found in schools across the country that young people attend.
Frida, I never cease to be amazed by humor and how it can be used to entertain and hurt. Humor is complex and reveals much about cultural assumptions that are deeply rooted. Obama so called joke is a perfect example of the cultural complexity of humor.

thailandchani said...

I agree with all you've said. I believe that when a social system is based on competition, there will always be some sort of "ism" that alienates entire segments of the population. That process of "othering" will not change with the current cultural values.

If we choose to create a social system that is based on cooperation instead of competition, that othering will go away.


~*

Candace Chaney said...

Right on, friend. The fact of the matter is that in the Western mind, there is collective unbelief in all life having been created and that ALL life is valuable and precious. On the contrary, survival of the fittest reigns.

It's disturbing at best.

william Peace said...

Candace, All people are not equal and it is an ideal we should strive for. I am not sure when or if we will ever realize this goal.

Thai, All social systems have flaws. It is our duty as citizens to insure these flaws are minimized as best we can.