It’s amazing how much two people can disagree when they start from the same premise.
Rob Rummel-Hudson’s blog post on the movie “The Change-Up” starts off just fine. He quotes an offensive line from the movie and states his opposition to its use as humor. For future reference, the line in question is this: a man viewing his friend’s newborn twins for the first time asks, “Why aren't they talking? Are they retarded? This one looks a little Downsy.”
So yeah, that’s pretty vile. Up to this point, the author and I are in agreement. The problem begins when he starts to explain his objection to the readers. His reasoning goes like this:
“Imagine a parent with a child who has Down syndrome… let's say it's a mom, one who spends her days, her years, taking care of a child, a very special child in every sense of the word…. She appreciates edgy humor, and she liked The Hangover, so when a new movie by the same writer comes out, she decides to take a few hours out of her weekend and go see it.” Rummel-Hudson then asks his readers to imagine how this woman feels when a character on the screen delivers that particular line.
That’s right: the R-word is wrong because it’s offensive… to non-disabled people.
To me, this is as ridiculous as if the author had critiqued the movie’s (doubtless plentiful) sexist humor by writing, “Some of the men in that audience have wives and daughters! How do you think they feel?”
Because, what about people who actually have Down Syndrome? Don’t they go to movies? Don’t people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, who have felt the impact of the R-word firsthand, also appreciate edgy humor sometimes? I’m sure that hearing this kind of language disturbs many non-disabled people, but that doesn’t mean they understand the experience of being used as a punchline.
Rummel-Hudson makes sure to give us all the juicy details of the misery that disability has wrought in this hypothetical mother’s life. He tells us that she suffers when others judge her child, that the strain of raising a disabled kid has most likely damaged, if not ended, her marriage. She has trouble finding a babysitter, and her family members without disabled kids don’t understand what she’s going through.
The author seems to feel that for readers to truly understand the R-word’s impact, they must know that having a disabled child is a truly terrible fate. Shame on those scriptwriters for bringing one more tribulation into the life of this hypothetical martyred mother! Isn’t just having a disabled child bad enough?
Framed like this, the R-word issue has nothing to do with respecting people with disabilities, our identities and our language preferences. The use of the R-word in movies becomes just another way that our existence makes non-disabled people’s lives harder.
The author says that the hypothetical mother he describes is appalled when her fellow moviegoers “think her family's pain is appropriate as a punchline.” Her family’s pain? For disabled people, this type of humor strikes directly at who we are. We, in ourselves, are the punchline. What does the hypothetical mother know about that?
The author says that the hypothetical mother feels isolated by “the ones who will always place her and her child and her family apart,” that this humor reminds her of her separation from society. Her separation? Parents of disabled kids are coddled in this society, spoken of as martyrs and given the benefit of every doubt. Even if they abuse their children, even if they kill them, they will have plenty of champions declaiming to the national news that the unbearable strain of a disabled relative excuses all possible actions. It is this mother’s hypothetical child who is isolated, viewed as a freak, shunted into segregated schools and housing, condescended to, joked about. The mother cannot possibly understand what this experience is like. What does she know about isolation?
I may be told that my response to this post indicates that I don’t have enough empathy for parents. As an autistic person, I’m used to having my opinions pathologized as a lack of empathy or an impairment in perspective-taking. In all fairness, however, I would like to point out that anyone who wants to take a lot of time to discuss the impact of ableism on non-disabled people is doing the exact same thing. I understand that some non-disabled folks have a hard time understanding a disabled person's point of view, but that doesn't make our perspectives any less important. If you can’t understand why a remark like this hurts a disabled person more than it could possibly hurt their mother, maybe it’s your perspective-taking skills that need some work.