Thursday, June 23, 2016

People who insult those with disability: Is an apology really enough?

I have been chubby for most of my life—"pleasantly plump," as my friend Faith used to say—and over the years, occasional insults have been lobbed at me. "Lose some weight!" said a sneering teen walking down Eighth Avenue in New York. "Yer fat!" muttered some man as I went to hail a taxi with a colleague in the East Village. "She's cute but she's pudgy!" remarked a guy to his friend at the bar I was at with friends.

I am comfortable with my body, yet I still recall these insults. They are hard to forget. I'm thinking of this in light of the recent brouhahas in the disability community. People with intellectual disability were mocked for the way they move and live. They were referred to as "retarded" and "'tard" and derided for riding a "short bus." I can only imagine how that must have felt to people with ID, and how it will haunt them.

There have been apologies.

First, Gary Owen—the comedian who had a demeaning skit about people with disability in his Showtime special I Agree With Myself—met with a group of four Special Olympic self-advocates in Washington, D.C. They included Julie Petty, Loretta Claiborne, Ricardo Thornton and Frank Stephens, who represented a broad coalition of disability advocates. In a statement, the four noted, "The meeting was educational, positive and productive. The outcomes from the meeting were significant. Mr. Owen made positive commitments regarding use of the 'r-word' in his comedy routine."

Owen and Showtime pulled the offensive segment from the comedy special. A representative for Owen indicated to Disability Scoop that he will no longer be using the "r-word" in the future.

A couple weeks later, Special Ed's Brewery cropped up in social media. One Ed Mason in Galt, California, branded a brewery with a play on his name and special education. The tagline on the beer label: "'Tard Tested, 'Tard Approved." The t-shirt slogan: "Ride the short bus to special beer." Complete with an illustration of a mini yellow bus, and a child licking a window, no less.

After facing a social media uproar, on June 14 the owner apologized and a few hours later took down his Facebook page. It left a lot of us still wondering what the heck he had been thinking.

On the upside, advocacy had an impact—people demeaning those with disability backed down, offensive material was removed. Voices raised in union can make a difference. Also, both of these stories got attention, furthering the message that it's despicable to make people with disability the butt of a joke.

But then there's this: Both of these guys have done lasting damage. Viewers who saw Owen perform his awful skit live (I can't forget their laughing faces) or watched it on Showtime's On Demand got this message: People with disability are lesser human beings.

People with intellectual disability will surely not forget this. As Frank Stephens, who has Down syndrome, once said in an editorial, "Please put yourself on that bus and fill the bus with people who are different from you. Imagine that they start making jokes using a term that describes you. It hurts and it is scary."

It's not known what exactly went on in the room between Owen and the self-advocates he met with. Ultimately and ideally, people with ID get to stand up for themselves. But as the mom of a child who isn't yet aware of this issue, I am here to defend his respect—and demand it. And to me, the retractions aren't enough.

I won't say much about the motives of Owen, who rather quickly went from stating that if people protested his skit he'd use them as material in his shows to backing down. He has a BET reality show in the works, one he seemingly wouldn't want to endanger.

Without some more meaningful action, especially in light of the public attention the above incidents received, retractions seem like lip service. Yes, these men could donate money to relevant causes or organizations such as the Special Olympics. Rapper 50 Cents wrote a $100,000 check to Autism Speaks in restitution for posting a video in which he mocked a 19-year-old with autism working at an airport he passed through. When blogger Kari Wagner-Peck called journalist Chuck Kloserman on his use of the word "retard," he apologized and donated $25,000 to a charity of her choice for people with intellectual disability.

But what if these men took it to the next level, embraced the very people they insulted and helped spread the word about what they learned? Ed Mason could hire people with intellectual disability in his (hopefully renamed) brewery. Gary Owen could invite a person with intellectual disability—perhaps one of the self advocates he met or, hey, what about his cousin Tina?!—to appear with him in a show and help people better see that people with ID have their own unique, winning personalities. Owen writes his material. Surely he could come up with a skit that involves people with intellectual disability instead of deriding them.

At the very least, Owen could have mentioned that he met with the self advocates on his frequently-updated Facebook page, or issued an apology there. He's no stranger to giving himself credit for being a good guy:

Of course I am grateful that the hateful segment was removed from Owen's Showtime special, and that he met with the self-advocates. It's good that Special Ed's Brewery quickly responded to the rightful outrage about his brewery.  But, really, after you have put something so cruel out there, there's no taking it back. To quote author Steven Camden from his book It's About Love, "Apologies are for when you forget something. Or bump into somebody. Apologies are for accidents. You can't apologise for something you chose to do. That's like apologising for being you."

It comes down to understanding that people with disability have feelings just like any of us do. They deserve to be treated with consideration, acceptance and respect. If that were the case, no apologies would be necessary.


  1. The only "humor" I see is a banal, distasteful statement that is fairly obviously made to hurt people.

    My question is: Why do people--rational, sensible people who would never make fun of any other kind of disability--think of intellectual disability as fair game for disparagement? Even giftedness is not mocked in such a way (unless you count A.N.T. Farm's "portrayal" of G/T kids as a joke. It's horribly inaccurate, but not blatantly demeaning.)

    1. An excellent question, Anna. The disability community is the last minority community out there considered fair game for disparagement.

    2. I have another question: I wrote a post about the use of "gifted" as a compliment and how it is problematic, but not many people care. Most people don't even realize that saying something along the lines of "Wow, you're gifted" is not helpful at all. Why do people not think about this, yet fervently protest the use of intellectual disability as an insult?

  2. This is such a hard question to answer. I believe forgiveness is important but it is so hard to give when the words sting you to your very core. Personally I have forgiven some of the individuals who have made fun of me but I find it harder to rationalize forgiveness towards public figures and companies especially when you factor in the fact the apologies might be done to save face

  3. Here is my problem with this entire post - we all mess up. I am sure, in your life, you have been racist, ableist, sexist and about every other ist. We all have. We all mess up, no matter how much we care about equity. We learn,we apologize and we hopefully do better. Allow people to grow is necessary to even approach equity.

    I read this blog to be a better, more inclusive teacher and I'm grateful for the ways it has helped me to be so, but often think about how much economic privilege there is in your family and how much Max gets (in terms of therapy, advocacy, schooling) compared to many other children with disabilities. I don't see you, though, examining your own privilege in this blog. I get that - your energies are focussed other places. However, it does seem that you are refusing to forgive (as is your right) people who are, at least seemingly, trying to do the very hard work missing from this blog.

    1. I respect what you say, Leslie, and I'm glad to hear you get ideas for inclusion on the blog. I couldn't agree more, everyone messes up, myself included; I've mentioned on the blog that I used to use the word "retard" before I knew better, although both these incidents went beyond that (as one commenter said on Ed Mason's Facebook page, he "pole-vaulted beyond tasteless into horribly discriminatory and offensive." Anything I may have said or done over the years in my life would not have had the public impact of the above events. I am grateful these guys revoked what they had said/done, but still wish that they would have done more than just a meeting/a Facebook apology in light of the public exposure the incidents received. In terms of our family situation, yes, we are lucky we have the means to take care of Max, and that my husband and I both have work that brings in the income to do so. I am not sure in what way you'd like me to address that here, and am open to suggestion. I have done my best to share information about assets, like a post I put up last year about free services for kids with special needs.

  4. While I understand that an apology may not be "enough," I find myself sort of agreeing with Leslie. As long as an apology is genuine (and not just for P.R. reasons), it's still a step towards equality/acceptance, ect. It doesn't mean that I will now love that person or company, but a heartfelt apology and change of ways is a start. Every action that brings us closer to loving actions counts.

    Of course, this doesn't mean I'd condone any form of hate or discrimination, but I do appreciate a genuine apology. When we know better, we do better. With time, hopefully we will see the effects of that.

    1. I agree that genuine and heartfelt apologies are a start, but I am not at all convinced that Gary Owen's apology was either of those.

  5. I agree with anonymous above. An apology sends the message we understand we made a mistake and are willing to do better. It would be great if Owen did more for the disabled, but maybe that is not his priority. I assume you did not advocate for the disabled before having your child. We can't assume that we learn (often the hard way) that something in our socity needs to be fixed, everybody will want to join the fight.

  6. I completely agree with you, Ellen. In both cases - the apologies only came because they had to apologize. In Ed's apology - he says that he was sorry (blah blah blah) but still wanted to keep the name (WTH?). He and his wife spent the next 2 days after posting the apology defending their actions. He only actually shut his store down and changed the name after someone vandalized his store (threw a rock at the window that had his "Special Ed's Brewery" name on it). Do I condone the I guess not...but did it work?

    In Gary Owen's case, he spent a great deal of time and effort vehemently defending himself - even going as far as saying he was a victim of bullying when a group protested him in Baltimore. He went on the Tom Joyner radio program laughing about the whole deal and boasting about how his black audience came to his rescue and intimidated the protestors to leave (insinuating that people with disabilities are afraid of black there are no black people who HAVE disabilities?!?). Owen would comment on my own FB page leaving statements like "there are no apologies in comedy". He would insist that he didn't know that the r-word was insulting, yet he claimed that he volunteered at Special Olympics for 10 years. Many of us even highly doubt he even has a cousin Tina.

    But here is the real kicker. Gary Owen was a perfect target. We knew it - and so did his publicist. He is very proud that he is a white guy who has broke into the black comedy scene (because he is married to a black woman). Even Tom Joyner himself had been quoted about how that is a very tenuous big slip-up and he would be thrown to the curb. He does also have that deal for his own reality show on BET...and he sure didn't want to risk that. So Special Olympics allowed him to set the terms of that meeting. Yes, he would meet with advocates....but no media and no statement - other than a statement from Special Olympics would be made. In other words, nobody really outside of our disability community would even know. If a tree falls in a forest....

    I have spent the past 10 years (along with several other moms) fighting hate on the internet. Until you really get into doing something like this - you really cannot have a clue how much there is....and how comedians like Gary Owen (who are not talented enough to get laughs without going for the cheap laughs like using people with disabilities as a punchline) actually set a precedence. Add in Sarah Silverman, Patton Oswalt, Kathy Griffin, Chris Rock, Larry the Cable Guy, Ben Stiller...the list is endless. And for each one of them - you have an audience who laughed. And each one of those audience members might think it is okay to use it at home in front of their kids...who then think it's okay. Not to mention the thousands and thousands of FB pages, memes, websites put up by amateurs simply to poke fun - for every one we get taken down, 100 more are in its place by the next day.

    Is it time to throw rocks? Maybe that is a bit extreme. But we as a community need to do more than just sign a petition, share a page and move on. We missed a great opportunity to make an example of Owen for the rest of the world - to tell them that maybe our kids won't tend to defend themselves but you've now picked on a group that put together makes up the LARGEST minority in the world...and that we aren't gonna stand for it anymore? If we (meaning the many national disability groups) had truly banded together to put pressure on Owen, put pressure on BET to cancel his reality show (really - do we really need another one of those anyway?). Instead...we allowed him to supposedly make an apology behind closed doors in a sound-proof room. If a tree falls in the forest...

    We missed a great opportunity.

    1. Thank you for this, I could not agree more. Ideally, yes, we should all band together, and it's sad that doesn't happen. At the very least, we all need to continue to speak out about these incidents, and demand apologies—and more. More power to you, and to us all.


Thanks for sharing!

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