Stand up for their rights, too

May 24, 2010

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The last time I wrote here, I talked about the stripping of dignity through exploitative photography. Today, I’m going to write about the widespread abuse of a very marginalized group – as crystallized in a repulsive occurrence earlier this month.

You may have read the news: on May 10, a group of four young men — whose ages ranged from 18 to 20 — bullied a 14-year-old boy. They threatened him with beating if he tried to run. He didn't. And so they victimized the boy, tattooing him with vile imagery and words.

The boy that suffered this indignity — and, doubtless, dozens of other humiliations over his short life so far — is learning disabled. He was targeted for that reason. Unfortunately this kind of abuse happens every day — and, perhaps unknowingly, many of us help perpetuate the mindset that allows it to happen so often.

I acknowledge that I am more vigilant and sensitive — perhaps overly so — to this that almost anyone I know. I’ve walked out of movies when I’ve heard the word “retard” or something similar spoken in dialogue. I’ve lost friends when I’ve confronted and asked them to stop using derogatory language when talking about mentally challenged classmates. I’ve even gotten into fights over this kind of thing.

I think that casually tossing around words like “retard” or scripting entertainment that treats developmentally disabled people as punch-lines is nothing short of abuse. It violates human rights. It further isolates and dehumanizes an already-marginalized population. It reduces people to stereotypes and gives more opportunity to bullies.

I wonder why, for the most part, our society is so nonchalant about making fun of those who are mentally challenged. Is it because so many of them can’t speak for themselves or stand up for their rights?

The thing is, most of us are very concerned for the rights of certain marginalized ethnic or social groups. Honestly, one of the reasons I got into this kind of work was to — figuratively — get between bullies and their intended victims. We rightfully pour our time and resources into supporting the causes of the world’s most vulnerable people. So why do many of us laugh at jokes about one of the most vulnerable groups around — those with developmental disabilities?

I think we can all agree that everyone should have the right to dignity. That we shouldn’t consciously do anything that strips away that dignity. And so, if you haven't already, I’m going to ask you to do two things that might be harder than you think:

  1. The next time you hear someone say the word “retard,” or refer to something as "retarded," or otherwise use those words in a derogatory way, call him or her on it. Words matter.
  2. If you’re thinking about seeing a movie or watching a television show that explicitly makes a joke out of someone who’s mentally challenged, make another choice. Don’t support that kind of exploitation.

Change can begin with the words we choose. The choices we make. Small but significant stands that add up to shared action.

You might have guessed that I have a deep personal commitment to this issue: I do. My brother, Danny, is developmentally disabled. And I read this disturbing news story on Saturday — Danny’s 35th birthday.

We all care about human rights and dignity. Together, we do a lot to advance the causes of the vulnerable. So let’s change our minds, then change our words and see what can happen.

If you agree with me, please think about putting this sentence on your Facebook or Twitter: "Words matter. I’m standing up for the developmentally disabled, and against jokes and stereotypes. Stand with me:"

Thank you for reading.