Cross-posted with Autism Sucks.
On the tonight show several days ago, President Obama made a joke. A joke that he undoubtedly quickly regretted. A joke that probably did not even register on the radar of most of America. But, a joke that engendered a strong reaction from many in the Special Needs Community.
I have read many posts about the President's gaff. I personally was not offended and tend to give people the benefit of the doubt when they make an honest faux pas. I do, however, respect that there are people who were offended or hurt by what he said. They are entitled to express their opinions and feelings on the issue. My personal fear, however, is that some individuals are using the President's mistake as a license to rant about Obama as a person(i.e, making assumptions about his level of sensitivity and his overall attitudes) thus diluting the REAL societal issue. The man put his foot a bit in his mouth, no question. However, I personally feel his joke was not made with malice or intent to harm. I have no issue with accepting his apology without asking him to prove to us HOW sorry he truly is. A sincere apology, for me at least, always suffices. Really, this is not an "Obama" issue, but a societal issue. Namely, the normalization of certain words and jokes that devalue those with cognitive/intellectual challenges. Until the people in the 'Special Olympics' and on 'the short bus' are seen as human beings with VALUE in our society, nothing really will change.
Many a punch line has been made at the expense of the cognitively challenged. Derogatory language regarding differently-abled individuals has become ingrained in our culture's common vernacular. Words like 'moron' 'idiot' and 'that's retarded' are common slang as are one-liners about 'riding the short bus,' or equating someone's abilities to "Forrest Gump." We scarcely give it a second thought, until someone we love is the one ON the 'short bus.' It is then that such comments take on a whole new meaning.
When such slang or joking references are made, whether by a public figure or a friend, there are 2 roads that we can take. We can take it as an opportunity to stand on a soapbox and lecture on how and why we are offended. Or, we can create an opportunity to educate, enlighten, open dialogue and share pieces of our lives that help others empathize. To spread awareness.
Awareness occurs on a grass roots level; planting seeds every where we go. Just as important as what we say is HOW we say it. Raising awareness can not truly work in harmony with finger pointing and personal judgements. We need to recognize that most people have little to no personal experience with people who have special needs. If someone comes across as lacking sensitivity to the issue, they need to be met with understanding and education, not criticism and a laundry list of how they are a horribly insensitive human being. Our first priority is to spread awareness, not moral outrage. What we are dealing with is an issue of ignorance (in the true, Webster's definition of the word) not intentional malice. And the best eradicator of ignorance is education.
We are called upon to raise awareness. Awareness is best achieved by telling our stories, one at a time, in any venue to whomever will listen. People don't want or need to be lectured. They don't want to feel like we're humorless. They don't need to feel humiliated and infantilized for their unintentional mistakes. They don't want their motives to be judged with undeserving harshness or have assumptions made about their character. So, what do we do? Ignore it? Laugh with them? Accept it? No. Spread awareness, but awareness free of negativity. Not focusing so much on why we are offended, but on humanizing the lives of those with Special Needs and the people who care for them. We plant a seed when we share, one at a time, and awareness begins to grow.
Let us spend less time judging the hearts of others and more time sharing our own hearts and experiences. Free of stone throwing. Free of character assumptions. Full of love for our daughters and sons who we are defending, suppressing the urge toward righteous indignation. Raising awareness is our task. Let us do it with thought and sensitivity; choosing our words with the same care we expect from others. Let us not forget that fairness and forgiveness are two-way streets.