Wednesday, October 24, 2012

An Opportunity to Promote Awareness

First of all, this is not a post about politics.  It is a post about an important social issue.  It is a post about the importance of eliminating a cultural acceptance of using degrading language to refer to people with disabilities.

Being an avid watcher of politics and all things election related, I have recently been very caught up in reading social media posts via facebook, twitter, etc about the upcoming Presidential election. There are lots of things that go on within these posts that I find on the offensive side, or at the very least distasteful, regardless of which "side" it is coming from. Recently, however, I found myself utterly outraged by the offensive, and much-talked-about, tweets by Ann Coulter (on twitter: @anncoulter).

Let's look at what Ms. Coulter's two tweets actually were.

The first tweet, on October 22nd in the moments after the Debate, was this:

 "I highly approve of Romney's decision to be kind and gentle to the retard."

The second tweet, on October 23rd, was this: 

"Obama: "Stage 3 Romneysia" - because cancer references are HILARIOUS. If he's "the smartest guy in the room" it must be one retarded room."

Yes, there were two in a time period spanning less than a day after the third and final Presidential debate.  One of the tweets, the first one, has been receiving all of the attention, possibly because (in my opinion at least) it was directly pointed name-calling of President Obama, instead of a reference to a vague group of undefined people in a room.  But I find the second one to be equally important, if for no other reason than that it shows a complete disregard on her part for how degrading and offensive the word actually is.  One tweet or comment, and although it is still foul, someone could say "oops, I really didn't mean to use that word."  Two tweets in that short span of time shows a pattern of behavior.

 I have previously on more than one occasion posted on this blog on the topic of ending the use of the "R-word," and I still continue to feel very strongly about it. (Read previous posts here and here).

I've read many things online about these Ann Coulter's use of the R-word in those tweets.  I've read the post about how the Special Olympics has reached out to her on previous occasions and attempted to educate her about the negativity of the word, providing her with information about sensitivity training.  I've read posts on other blogs and online news sources.  I've debated the issue with others through social media.

What I found the most on-point and the most moving was the Open Letter to Ann Coulter written by  John Franklin Stephens, a Special Olympics Athlete.  In his letter, the writer talks about various connotations that go along with the use of the R-word.  Then, he gets straight to the point and says the following:

After I saw your tweet, I realized you just wanted to belittle the President by linking him to people like me.  You assumed that people would understand and accept that being linked to someone like me is an insult and you assumed you could get away with it and still appear on TV.
Well said, Mr. Stephens!  That is exactly the point of all of this, shall we say "hoopla," about the offending tweets.  When people use language like what Ms. Coulter continues to use, they are making an assumption that people hearing that language will consider it an insult to the person they are calling that name.  That assumption, and the unfortunate truth of it, is the heart of the larger problem here.  When you use the word "retard" as an insult, you are perpetuating the idea that to be "retarded" or "disabled" is to be "less than."  It is something to be despised, made fun of, degraded, in Mr. Stephens' words - belittled.  And when someone like Ann Coulter uses the word "retarded" as an insult, she is perpetuating that to a large audience under her influence.

Many people out there are saying that we as a community should not be giving Ann Coulter what she wants, we should not be responding to her tweet with so much attention.  I think that oversimplifies it.  After a couple of days of fuming about the use of this word by someone who says she is a Christian, someone who is clearly not uneducated, and someone who has the power to influence how other people think, I've come to a realization.  What Ann Coulter gave us was an opportunity.  Yes, we are giving her attention by talking about her tweet, but that oversimplifies the issue because what we are also doing is giving the issue itself attention.  Each time someone tweets Ms. Coulter that they are offended by the word, and each time someone reposts the various articles like the letter by John Franklin Stephens, it is an opportunity for another person to become aware of the problem and to be educated as to why this word should not be used.  I don't believe that Ann Coulter acted out of ignorance of the issue.  Maybe I'm wrong, and maybe something like taking advantage of the invitations from Mr. Stephens and others affiliated with the Special Olympics to spend time with persons with disabilities or to receive some kind of sensitivity training would change her view on this.  What I do know is that many, many people out there still DO use the R-word out of ignorance, and it's those people that the type of response seen since Ms. Coulter's tweets might actually reach.

So I say, let's not let our actions be controlled by whether or not the perpetrator in this instance wants the attention we are all giving her.  Let's instead let our actions in response be guided by the realization that this situation has given us all as advocates an opportunity to promote awareness.  What I think that means is that people not just call her out, but that we take the opportunity to educate folks in our society with information and resources about this important issue.

Here are some resources to help do that:

Post from the Special Olympics website, An Open Letter to Ann Coulter, by John Franklin Stephens

2008 Opinion Piece in the Denver Post, Using the word "retard" to describe me hurts, by John Franklin Stephens

The "Stop the R-Word" website

Spread the Word to End the Word Resources page by the Special Olympics

Not Acceptable R-Word PSA on youtube

Watch Your Language, Stop Using the R Word, article in the Washington Times

Spread the Word to End the Word, article on Maria Shriver's webpage

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