Throughout high school, I taught at a learning center and worked with kids who either had learning disabilities or were just behind compared to other kids in their grade. Nick was one of the brightest student I had, but was only with me because he had a speech impediment and wasn’t able to read out loud properly. I had about 3-4 students I worked with at once, and the parents of the other kids who were in the same session as Nick confronted me and said that they did not want their kids to be there at the same time as him. Although Nick was not behind in school at all, they thought that his issues would negatively affect their kids and he would also be better off just working alone. One of their 7-year-old daughters even called him a retard during class one day and said that she didn’t want to be there with him because he “talks funny.” At the age of 7, this girl had the misinformed and malicious vocabulary to call a boy who had nothing more than a speech impediment “retarded”.
Such a vocabulary has embedded itself in our culture in nearly every facet. If you want to see the most spineless, cruel, and unapologetic form of bullying, look at YouTube comments. People take every opportunity they have to anonymously express all their ignorant point of views at strangers who may fit the category it is that they are intolerant of. There are far more comments revolving around the lines of “LOL ur so retarded” or “hahahah her dad must have dropped her on her head when she was little,” than your run-of-the-mill racist, homophobic, anti-religion, and all kinds of other horrible comments. For the last few months, I’ve been noticing a trend in hateful comments regarding disabilities, even when the person in the video is not even disabled.
For anyone who is reading this who knows me, I do not tolerate “retarded” “slow” and similar words used as insults or jokes about other people. Disabilities and retardation are a serious matter, serious conditions, and no one chooses to be disabled. When you call something retarded when you mean to say its dumb, dysfunctional, or stupid, you take away disabled peoples’ agency to thrive as human beings in our society. As a culture, we have grown to make fun of the powerless in this world by labeling ourselves as all-knowing and powerful, and giving ourselves a sense of false superiority by making fun of them or trying to help them as if we are above them and they cannot help themselves.
We do not see disabled people as human beings, but charity cases or inspirational stories. Even when people have full mental capacity and cognition, we give them a look of pity and “oh, bless your soul” when we see them. We also strive to use them as these insane sources of inspiration (which many of them are), but there is a pattern in how we do that. We look at these images of armless men completing triathlons and basically say that “if they could do that, so could we.” which is absolute bullshit and undermines the disabled individuals effort, mental and physical strength, and journey. There are some people who will literally never admit that there’s anything wrong with that, the use of words like retarded, or pitying and putting yourself above the disabled population.
Why are disabilities still made fun of most, even when people are just BORN WITH THEM (for the most part), like race and sexual orientation? Why are people looked at as so helpless when they may even have a better quality of life than the ones looking down at them? And what is the result of us looking at this whole disabled population as one that needs our constant help and support?
This minority is particularly discriminated against is because there are damn near no visible people in positions of power, in media, in entertainment, who are disabled. When I first started thinking, I could not think of a single television host who is in a wheelchair. I could not picture a single politician I have seen who has a speech impediment or is visibly handicapped. And those that are handicapped are seen as a novelty.
Maysoon Zayid is a comedian who was born with Cerebral Palsy and has struggled with that her whole life. Nevertheless, she learned how to walk and pursued acting. During college, she was a straight A student in her theater department, but was never once cast as more than an extra in a play. Her school performed a play in which the main character had CP, and she thought that would be her chance to be the lead. Even then, the part was given to and able-bodied character. She said “disability is as visual as race, if a wheelchair user cant play Beyoncé, Beyoncé cant play a wheelchair user.” She was furious and asked why she was not given the role regardless of her phenomenal acting. The casting director essentially told her that she would be put under a lot of strain and wouldn’t be able to fit the role perfectly even though she was basically born with the capability to thrive in this role.
Aside from the entertainment world’s bias against disabled actors, there have only been 18 disabled politicians in the United States, including those suffering from lost limbs, natural medical conditions, and even just loss of vision in one eye. For the history of the United States, this number is extremely small. However, that is the greatest number that any county in the world has had. Brazil, Australia, Mexico, Argentina, Poland, Ecuador, Malaysia, the Dominican Republic, among many other countries, have only had ONE.
There is a concerted effort to build a glass ceiling for disabled people and keep them out of sight until Readers Digest or Oprah needs to boost ratings and shine a light on a blind musician or paraplegic athlete.
In a sense, I think this, like many other issues, is a vicious cycle. If you grew up in a wheelchair and saw someone running for office in a wheelchair, I think that subconsciously, you would feel that you were capable of much more than if you weren’t. But because there isn’t a visible disabled population, the disabled population at large does not have the inspiration and support that many other minority groups have. To reduce hate speech and lack of connection with the disabled population, we need to have more positive images of disabilities represented in the media, in positions of power, and in a positive, thriving light. We need to see them as people. We don’t need to see them as novelties to take a picture with and roll around in their wheelchair as charity work. We are not philanthropists for helping the disabled population when necessary, but once we act like we are their saviors and they are dependent on us, we take away all the room they have to succeed in this world in a public light. There are disabled people in this world who can paint better, perform better, write better, lead better, teach better, and many more things better than a lot of people currently in those positions. If we did not constantly treat them as people who needed our help, maybe we would be able to give them the space and acceptance they need to thrive as members of society. Maybe this would also alleviate the hate-speech and begin to break this cycle of oppressive pity. Once we achieve that and truly see past their disability, but not without respecting their hardships, only then will we see society’s most oft looked over oppressed minority as equals.