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, r-word.org), 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @Zazzle, email email@example.com and tweet at @RedBubbleHelp. Log into your Amazon account to reach out to customer service.
Once again, our voices made a difference—the Zazzle.com 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.