Once again the ABC's Speechless showcases common advocacy issues championed by the disability community. The latest episode examined society's view of using the word "retarded" as a put down or self-deprecating insult. The interesting take on the issue though, did not involve J.J. directly, but Ray.
The show opens with Kenneth, J.J.'s aide, out to dinner with the DiMeo's and he overhears someone using the "r" word in conversation. He turns to the family and says," it's my turn." In other words, advocacy time, and a teachable moment for someone in society. Speechless being a comedy, Kenneth comes back slightly chastised, saying they were talking about "re tarring their driveway." Funny yes. And of course, it sets up the rest of the episode. (Watch the episode HERE)
In this episode Ray finally was about to get to kiss the girl of his dreams. Someone he had had a crush on noticed him at the Prom, and wanted to go take him behind the bleachers. Well, all of us having grown up in the US, knows exactly what that means....kookookachoo. But right before they began to kiss, the girl uses the 'r" word to describe her own mixup.
Ray is in a conundrum. He doesn't know what to do. Every male hormone in his body is telling him to kiss her anyway, but his brain and his heart is telling him that he needs to make this a teachable moment. So he turns to J.J. to ask permission to forget about advocating at the moment, and to simply be a teenage boy. J.J. being a good older brother, tells Ray to go for it. Kiss the girl! (See below *)
But there is a snag. Instead of her actually accepting the fact that she did something wrong, she argues with Ray how political correctness is tiresome and that since she didn't mean anything bad by using the word, he should not be upset. Now Ray's hormones wanting to forget that the entire incident occurred is momentarily taken along for the ride, until dignity gets the better of him.
Ray attempts to still teach her how hurtful using the "r" word is, yet she simply does not want to hear it. In the end, she decides to go kiss someone else. The upshot of the encounter is that the girl in question is not a flighty stereotypical teenage girl, but a bright, straight A student destined to go to an Ivy league and to enter the world of intellectual thought and accomplishments.
The audience's teachable moment is the reality that simply because someone is highly intelligent, and can make a cogent argument about Constitutional rights, it doesn't mean they are right, moral, or ethical. They also may not be someone you want to kiss either, no matter how "hot" they turn out to be. Sometimes the brain is better than the hormone when making a decision about with whom you want to associate.
It is important that within society, we also teach that simply because you have the right to do or say something, doesn't mean you should do or say these things. Words are powerful instruments of society. They need to be used carefully and with forethought.
Tolerance is important. Allowing others with different view points to speak is the hallmark of our republic. Now it doesn't mean we don't challenge these speakers. It doesn't mean what they say doesn't make us angry. But we are supposed to allow them to speak (unlike what is happening on college campuses in the US today if you are pro-Israel). Honest, open debate is good for society. It is healthy. It helps us grow as a people.
But it is also important to understand when you use a word that someone finds deprives them of their humanity and their right to self-determination. When anyone in society uses the "r" word, it not only dehumanizes those with intellectual or developmental disabilities, it makes society less of a welcoming and an accepting place.
It is difficult enough for those with disabilities to find welcome in our world. That is why 85% of those with autism are either underemployed or unemployed. Understanding how language is a weapon in the war on disability rights is one of the first steps in gaining true civil rights for the disabled.
*Now another point in the story: When Ray asked J.J. for absolution if he went ahead and kissed the girl who used the "r" word. That was not cool. Not by a long shot. Taking responsibility for your own choices is what makes us grownups. Sartre said, "we are our choices." And he was right. The choices you make define who you are and what kind of person you will be. Seeking an "indulgence" to your own poor choices teaches a person absolutely nothing.
Moreover, sometimes society tends to think that every disabled person is the arbiter of what the disability community thinks, wants or needs. That is not so. Disabled people, as with everyone in the world, are individuals. They do not all agree on every cannon of thought or idea proposed by the grand poobahs of any movement. Can you believe that there actually is a variety of thought in the disability community about every topic, subject or controversy, except one: that those with disabilities are human beings and are deserving of being treated with respect.
Disabled people are people. Some are good. Some are bad. Some are kind. Some are miserable human beings. Some are people you would want to know and others you wouldn't want to be with under any circumstances. In other words, disabled people are human. But what they also do not need is someone looking to make themselves feel better by asking for a dispensation from doing the right thing.
The disabled person in your life is not the Pope. If you know it is wrong to do it, simply don't do it. Asking the disabled person in your life if it is ok to be an asshole when it comes to disability rights, is not ok. Even if you are a teenage boy with raging hormones. OK?
In the end, the part that I like best about Speecheless though, has very little to do with disability rights as opposed to showing the world that families with disabled members are simply that, families. Nothing special. Nothing more moral, ethical or inspirational. But simply people, trying to do their best on a day-to-day basis with the hand that they have been dealt.
Yes, it's nice if someone recognizes that there are extra needs at times for our families. But it would be nicer if instead of the pat on the head or telling us that "God only gives us what we can handle," is if someone asks us to lunch (or cup of coffee), to play a game of tennis (or squash, bridge, mahjong, or chess), or to join their book club and not read any books about disabled people at all (my personal favorites are spy novels especially the Gabriel Allon series).