Thursday, June 22, 2017

If you think these t-shirts are funny, please get a clue, a heart, a soul

A lovely mom I know emailed me last night, distressed about t-shirts. She has a child with a rare genetic condition, tuberosis sclerosis complex (TSC), which causes tumors to grow in various organs including the brain, heart and eyes. It can also result in developmental delays and epilepsy, and it's the primary genetic cause of autism. A parent she knows in a TSC support group spotted an offensive t-shirt on Zazzle that states: "My mommy says I'm special (short bus special...)." A search revealed a number of "short bus" tees on the site.

"This is simply another way of mocking people in the vein of calling them 'retarded,' since bussing for special needs individuals and children is often on smaller buses nicknamed 'the short bus,'" she noted.

I had the most awful case of deja vu as I read her email. I found the post where I'd written about a short bus shirt nearly five years ago for sale at Hastings (now closed), and a t-shirt on Zazzle that read "Retards do it gooder." After much hell was raised on social media, both companies removed the shirts.

Sadly, they've continued to fester online. Zazzle has a Short Bus Clothing & Apparel section with doozies such as "Fresh off the short bus" and "I'm so special I drive the short bus" and a shirt proclaiming "Intellectually challenged" with a picture of a small bus. There's also a two-page Retards T-Shirts & Shirts section with tees that have a mix of negative and positives messages (an improvement over their eight pages of offensive "retard" shirts from five years ago). Several online sites, including Be Wild and RedBubble, sell the shirts too. Amazon also has a bunch, in clear violation of their examples of prohibited listings which include "Products that promote or glorify hatred."

Over the years, people bothered by those of us who've spoken out against the r-word" have claimed that our efforts are futile. "Another term will just take its place," they've said.

"Short bus" does seem to be gaining popularity as a slur for intellectual disability. It's a hashtag on Instagram and Twitter. Even as the usage of the r-word seems to be on the decline (thank you,, here we are again, parents speaking up to raise awareness and gain respect for the ones we love. "Short bus" is offensive and demeaning to people with intellectual disability. As a t-shirt message, it encourages people to view those with ID as lesser human beings. Why is that OK? Ridiculing people with intellectual disabilities is the last form of prejudice tolerated in this country.

My son sees nothing shameful or disgraceful about riding the short bus, or who he is, and I hope he never will. How dare people deride him, and others like him. I'll say it once again: My son with disabilities already has enough societal challenges to overcome in this world without names that make him out to be a joke.

When members of that parent group emailed Zazzle, my friend says, Zazzle responded with a generic message indicating that their community of designers could promote their own creations on Zazzle, and that parents could report shirts that violate the company's guidelines on the individual shirts' pages. Plenty of those shirts remain on the site.

Have your say: email or tweet @Zazzle, email and tweet at @RedBubbleHelp. Log into your Amazon account to reach out to customer service.


Once again, our voices made a difference—the sections for short bus and "retards" shirts are gone, hopefully to never return. Yesterday, Jay Ruderman—activist, philanthropist and president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which focuses on the inclusion of people with disabilities—shared on Facebook the note he'd sent to Zazzle asking them to take down the offensive merchandise, and their response. Although it's heartening that these shirts been removed, more importantly, I hope that in speaking up we've raised awareness about respecting people of all abilities. A lack of respect and understanding is, ultimately, the underlying problems that need to be resolved. The more we speak up, the more we help people understand that our children are children, like any others, who don't deserve to be the butt of jokes.

Here's the response from Zazzle's content management team:

Zazzle provides and open marketplace where user-generated content can be used to create a wide variety of products and apparel. By its very nature, the platform thrives on creativity and the opportunity for people to share their designs with the world. When a product is brought to our attention that violates our terms of service, we take swift action to have the product removed. We've removed the items in question. Thank you for raising the issue. Zazzle is a marketplace so we rely on our community to maintain an open dialogue with us—than you again for alerting us to the offensive items.


  1. Ellen,

    I think fighting zazzle on this is semi hopeless. For more positive news, have you read the New York Times disability column written by Melissa Shang and published this week? If not, do so as soon as you can. It's terrific!

    1. That article is amazing! Thanks for sharing

    2. I read that article! So impressed by all she's done at 14(!) to advocate for people with disabilities!

    3. I just read it. L-o-v-e. Such an important message for people to hear. I remember her American Girl petition!

  2. This is really sad. I think you are correct in that "short-bus" is the new r-word. Have others heard this being used verbally?

    The one that really gets me is the bus driver. Since starting early childhood special education at age 3 to now (getting ready to start high school), my son's bus drivers have always been a part of his village. Bus routes are chosen by seniority and these routes are always the first to go.

    1. I had a couple times when I was in high school.

  3. It is amazing to me that ANYONE in this day and age would think of, produce, sell and/or buy this. Unbelievable. I am in shock. I mean I would be speechless if I saw this on a person on the street. What, if anything, would you say to someone who has this mentality???

  4. These shirts make me want to cry. How could anyone think that this is okay?

    I also have a question for all of you, as it seems this comment section always has quite a few people with experience around loved ones with special needs. I really hope this is okay, but I thought you ladies might know the best path. I have an older cousin who is intellectually disabled, let's call him MJ. He lives with my aunt and uncle and my family goes to see them every weekend. I've always loved our family Sunday dinners, but recently my MJ has started touching himself inappropriately ever time we're alone together. I know he doesn't know any better, but it still scares me a little. Sometimes hell corner me in the hallway near the bathroom and do it. He's almost 30 and well over 6 feet tall, so I guess it's just really intimidating. Mentally the doctors say he's on the level of an 6 year old so I know he doesn't mean any harm. I love my cousin and my aunt and uncle. I'm afraid they'll be mad if I tell them it bothers me. Whenever anyone tries to point out any action that MJ does that might not be okay (like shoplifting. He did that a lot for a while.) my aunt and uncle get really mad.

    Would you moms of kids with special needs want to know? How do you think you would want to be told? I love my cousin, but it's making me really uncomfortable.

    1. I'm willing to bet that MJ knows exactly what he's doing and he will escalate the behavior if you don't say something. I don't think so-called mental age means anything, but I do know that 6 year olds have the ability to manipulate, lie, and in general be horrible brats when they want to. Say strongly, "MJ, it is not appropriate for you to touch yourself on your (body part) In front of other people. If you want to do that go to the bathroom. Nobody wants to be around someone who does that. It is gross to do it in public." Be loud. Be forceful. "I don't like it. You need to stop, now." If he doesn't, then ask family or his caregivers for help. And don't let yourself be alone with him. Just because someone has an ID, it doesn't mean they aren't a sexual being and cannot be a sexual predator. That being said, if it is a new behavior, I would wonder where he learned it from and be worried that he was being inappropriately touched by a caregiver, as disabled people are far more likely to be abused than to be the abuser.

    2. *Everything* Kate said. I would speak to him once and then, if the behavior doesn't stop, I would tell your aunt and uncle immediately. Consider this: You're not just protecting yourself, you're protecting him from getting into trouble by possibly doing this with someone else. You can tell your aunt and uncle that.

  5. Perhaps the Ruderman Family Foundation and Zazzle had already acted by the time I clicked on the shirt/clothing categories mentioned. "Hopefully never to return".

    I am enjoying the Seanese shirts at the moment [and have done since they were released in early May along with the 'new' season of BORN THIS WAY] - especially "I dance the sassy way" - which might very well appeal to teenage boys. There was a Father's Day set.

  6. I understand why you're upset about these shirts. But I wanted to add that Zazzle is a great site because it allows the designers to freely express themselves. I also wanted to say that I've been designing on Zazzle for over 6 years and I'm familiar with a lot of the designers there, and many of the designers have disabilities or are struggling financially. Most artists don't design shirts like the ones in this blog post, either. The site is mostly positive. I just wanted to add this post to give another perspective on Zazzle. The site actually helps a lot of disabled people make money.


Thanks for sharing!

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