The meaning of a word bears the weight of generations past, and this decides whether a word, which once may have been merely descriptive, is now hurtful and in what context. Generations of African American leaders have labored at this mammoth task, informing society that the “n-word” will no longer be permitted in civil society. For those who care about the 3% of the population with intellectual disabilities, who are offended by the “r-word”, I will briefly outline Western society’s shameful treatment of individuals with Down syndrome, who are the most easily recognizable individuals with intellectual disabilities, and therefore bear the brunt of this marginalization.
Dr. John Langdon Down, brother-in-law of Charles Darwin, first classified those with Down syndrome as members of a separate race, as he strove to improve the treatment of the disabled who were then called idiots. He assumed that their almond-shaped eyes meant that they were from the Mongolian race and, in an 1866 paper, he coined the unfortunate term, “Mongolian idiocy”. The less offensive term “Down syndrome” emerges from the work of the editor of the British medical journal the Lancet in 1961.
In the Darwinian economy of survival of the fittest only the best adapted should survive to reproduce thus improving the overall species. This was the credo of the worldwide Eugenics Movement in the early 20th Century which, in the USA, fought hard to establish compulsory sterilization programs of the “feeble minded”. Eventually 27 states established sterilization programs. In the landmark Supreme Court decision in Buck v Bell concerning a woman, Carrie Buck, who was forcibly sterilized, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes proclaimed in the 8-1 majority opinion, “three generations of imbeciles are enough”. At the time, “imbecile” was a medical term used to describe the retarded, but Holmes’ use of it smacks of contempt. He was not alone. The US sterilization program of the retarded continued for three decades, claiming 60,000 victims.
The eugenicists in Nazi Germany convinced families of the mentally retarded to send them to institutions, where they were classified as “useless eaters” and under the T-4 program the retarded were the first Germans to be shipped to the gas chambers. Being labeled “retarded” was a death sentence in Germany. Back in the US, pressure mounted to eliminate the sterilization programs; however, retarded children were left to languish in institutions where they received little more than the most basic necessities. Their families seldom visited them, and many, like playwright Arthur Miller, went so far as to deny their existence out of shame.
The cloud of shame began to lift when, in 1959, French geneticist Dr. Jerome Lejeune discovered the cause of Down syndrome was Trisomy 21, an extra 21st chromosome. In France, Trisomy 21 was considered contagious, a result of the mother’s syphilis, so that individuals with Down syndrome were avoided and shamed. Lejuene spent the next four decades advocating for individuals with Down syndrome to be treated with kindness and dignity, as he sought a cure. Things began to improve for the mentally disabled; in the 1980’s in the US they began to be considered worthy to receive medical treatment for their congenital heart anomalies, thus doubling their life expectancy from 25 to 50. The 1990 enactment of the Americans with Disablilities Act set standards against discrimination of individuals with mental retardation, and little by little, advocacy groups such as the National Down Syndrome Congress were successful in changing society’s view that people with Down syndrome were a burden. Educational programs such as Early Intervention began to improve their cognitive skills and academic performance, as many children were accepted for the first time in public schools.
In the 1990’s Chris Burke, an actor with Down syndrome, had a popular TV series, “Life Goes On”, designed around him and doctors could tell expectant mothers whose baby had Trisomy 21, “You know Corky from that TV show? Your child will be like him.” In the past decade, individuals with Down syndrome have continued to break stereotypes; go to college, get married, obtain driver’s licenses, and live independently. A good-natured film about a man who tries to fake an intellectual disability to win the Special Olympics, The Ringer, shows how the participants taught him to respect their dignity and join them in friendship.
Today, the mentally challenged still struggle for acceptance by society. Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer states that a healthy dog or pig has more of a right to live than a disabled infant, and advocates that parents be given a period of time after birth to decide if they will kill their disabled child. The abortion rates for babies with Down syndrome are 90% in the US and Europe. The quest for complete acceptance is far from over, and the mockery of Tropic Thunder serves as a painful reminder of a dark past of being treated as sub-humans and how all these hard-won gains can be eclipsed by a few takeaway lines from a popular film, like “Once upon a time, there was a retard”.
Gail Williamson, the head of the Down Syndrome Association of LA which led the protest at the premiere of Tropic Thunder, is the mother of Blair, an actor who has Down syndrome. At Gail’s suggestion the producers of The Ringer cast individuals with Down syndrome in the film, since they form the majority of Special Olympics participants (the producers originally wanted to make typical actors look as though they had DS). Gail knew that actor Eddie Barbanell would shine in the role pf Billy, the “ringer’s” wise-cracking roommate. She was right. He was amazing!
If Tropic Thunder did more than provide cheap laughs at the expense of intellectually disabled people, Gail Williamson might have advised Dreamworks on how to handle sensitive issues or to completely eliminate the film’s subplot film, Simple Jack, in which Ben Stiller overacts the part of a mentally challenged man in the 1930’s, and fellow actors advise him with the line, “Never go full retard.” There are already t-shirts on sale with the words “full retard”.
Those of us who care for the intellectually disabled are incensed at DreamWorks’ callousness in the face of the painful past of those with intellectual disabilities. It’s more than the “R-word”; it’s an entire history of marginalization, neglect, murder and abuse, which is masked as lighthearted mockery in the film. In a scene where an actor is discussing adoption of a child, Matthew McConaughey retorts, “At least you get to pick your kid; I’m stuck with mine”, indicating a photo with a retarded son. Imagine sitting in the movie and hearing those words as the parent of a mentally challenged child. I don’t have to imagine; I have such a child.
Advocates such as Ms. Williamson of the DSALA, David Tolleson of the National Down Syndrome Congress, The Arc, National Down Syndrome Society, Special Olympics, and the American Association of People with Disabilities are working to help society overcome the tragic past and build a more positive future for those with intellectual challenges.
Neal J. Johnson, President and CEO of Special Olympics New York, said, “Special Olympics strives continuously to educate people about the gifts and talents of people with intellectual disabilities. It is part of Special Olympics’ Be a Fan™ public awareness campaign that highlights the commonality of all people and the values that we all share and admire — acceptance, dignity, joy, determination and courage among others. To have these efforts impacted so harshly and so negatively by a commercial film is disheartening. We expect better citizenship from the Hollywood film industry. By commenting on the movie, we are responsibly registering our position of disappointment in such a lack of cultural stewardship.”
Words have tremendous power, and the epithets hurled at my daughter in school will cause some wounds maternal love cannot erase. She will wonder what she has done to deserve the name-calling. What can I tell her about the word “retard”?