Friday, March 20, 2009

President Obama’s Thoughtless Joke-Change We Can Do Without

Dear Son* was sitting in his wheelchair as I prepared to brush his teeth. The glass of water was at the table and I had just put the toothpaste onto the toothbrush. At seventeen, I still am brushing his teeth, since he has very limited use of his hands or arms. Good Morning America came on and one of the first stories was President Obama’s appearance on Jay Leno and his “gaffe” regarding the Special Olympics. He was talking about his bowling score when he said,
“ It's like -- it was like Special Olympics, or something.” The news report went on to talk about it and I felt sick to my stomach. Here was my Dear Son listening to our President, make an off color joke about people with special needs. It hurt me and it hurt me to have him listen to the commentary. They went on to report that when he got on Air Force One, he called Timothy Shriver**, Chairman of the Special Olympics to apologize prior to the airing, for his gaffe. Timothy Shriver, told Good Morning America (GMA), “He expressed his disappointment and he apologized in a way that was very moving. He expressed that he did not intend to humiliate this population. He, I think importantly, said he was ready to have some of our athletes over to the White House to bowl or to play basketball, or help him improve his score." That’s fine Mr. Shriver, but how do I explain that to my Dear Son?

As the day went on, Oprah came on. She praised Obama’s appearance on Jay Leno however there was no mention of the gaffe. Jenny McCarthy, whose son has autism, was a panelist on the Oprah show filling in for Gayle King. Jenny, typically outspoken and with a child with special needs said nothing.

Later in the day, I heard a comment by Jay Leno, that he felt it was his best show ever. No mention of the huge gaffe. I guess it wasn’t important.

I had to wonder, however, if the remark had been different, how Barack Obama would have felt. Suppose he was sitting at the breakfast table with his two daughters, when GMA came on. Suppose the President of the United States had appeared on Jay Leno and made a thoughtless joke that included a “racial slur”. Suppose the President had called the NAACP and apologized and said that "maybe they could have some African American people come to the White House or something." Would he want his daughters to go? How do you think they would have felt? Do you think they would feel welcome? Do you think he would want them to go? And what about Oprah? Would she have praised the show or would she have mentioned the slur? And Jay Leno, would he have said it was one of his best shows ever…or would they all think twice before they made those comments?

Much was made of this historic election. For many months, we heard stories of how many people grew up at a time when equality wasn’t the norm. And yet, it’s somehow o.k. in 2009 for the President of the United States to make a joke about a segment of the population that can’t defend themselves.

And what about Timothy Shriver’s response? What I expected to hear, from the Chairman of the Special Olympics was how deeply disappointed he was in the President’s statements. Instead, he simply said that he was moved by the apology and that this could be a learning experience for the rest of the country. There wasn’t any disappointment in his tone; instead, he was rather upbeat when they interviewed him.

This story reminded me of a post called, "Retard" that I wrote in July of 2006 where I discussed two incidents that a friend of mine and I had regarding people making derogatory statements about children and people with mental and physical disabilities, similar to what the President of the United States just did. I wrote,

“I remember when I first started blogging, I would read this pediatrician’s blog. One day, he made a derogatory comment about “riding the short bus”. He didn’t seem to think there was any real problem with making such a derogatory statement like this. I was appalled that a pediatrician today could make such a statement and not see anything wrong with it. When I called him on it, he told me to stop reading his blog,that he could write whatever he wanted. Nice. The point isn’t that you can call people whatever you want because you have a blog, the point is that as a pediatrician, a professional, a human being and a father, you would think that someone who have more compassion than referring to those with mental disabilities in a derogatory manner. Aside from compassion, it’s just plain wrong. And then to accept money from these parents for your “professional” services, seems appalling. Can you really expect your mentally disabled child to be treated respectfully and with dignity by their pediatrician if they don’t see any problem with making derogatory statements like that in public no less?

I am amazed that some people still think it’s o.k. to make derogatory statements about people with mental and physical disabilities. I am amazed that people make statements about people who can’t defend themselves. I am amazed that people don’t understand how easily it can be for anyone to become disabled. I mean, you can get hit by a car and be severely disabled mentally and physically for the rest of your life."

I ended that post telling my friend, “that we need to come up with a response for people. When you are fortunate enough to have a child born normal, I suspect you don’t imagine what it might be like to have a child who is retarded. But ignorance is not acceptable anymore. It’s also not fair to Dear Son and children like him. He is not any less of a person because of disabilities. And to be referred to as the butt of anyone’s joke is totally unacceptable today.”

I wrote that post in 2006. I guess not much has changed. Let’s hope the President is listening.

*Dear Son is seventeen years old and suffers from a progressive neurological disease and intractable seizures as a result of a random mutation of the ARX gene. This mutation causes infantile spasms, dystonia and severe mental retardation.

**Note: Timothy Shriver's mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, is the founder of the Special Olympics; his uncle is Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, whose endorsement in the Democratic primaries was viewed as instrumental in Obama winning the Democratic nomination.


Anonymous said...

I have to agree with you on this one. I was upset that he said that. I personally would keep my kids away and would not let them go. Having a child with autism and losing a child who suffered mental and physical disabilities, makes me very angry at him.

~ Sara in Seattle

Anonymous said...

It was terrible.

I am glad that he apologized and has invited bowlers from the Special Olypmics to the White House.

Pro said...

He has hurt many families in America. He needs to say he is sorry in the public, not to an organization.

In addition, someone who claims to have experienced prejudice and stereotypes throughout life, and has written about them in great detail, should be more sensitive and refined from life's lessons.

Furthermore, Obama claimed he was going to have the world think 'highly' of America again. Will this joke help?

For someone who spoke of equality as a creed. Does this joke match that philosophy?

For someone that said he would stand for all people. Does this stand up for those that participate in the Special Olympics?

The fact is Obama claimed a higher standard. To much is given, much is required.

Obama has just showed us that 'yes we can' destroy what a campaign stands for with a single joke.

During the campaign for the White House in 2008, the media criticized Palin for being ‘common,’ 'not-polished,' 'not-compassionate' and ‘not presidential.’ However, compare Sarah Palins attitude in this video created three weeks ago for the Special Olympics in Boise, Idaho.

You decide the more ‘presidential’ among them. Watch:

Anonymous said...

His action doesn't surprise me in the least. But then I'm not overly fond of the guy.

...and for what it's worth, I went bowling with my brother (down syndrome) and some of his school mates a while back. They bowled the living pants off me. Out of five people I had the lowest score (a 24). Most of the others were in the 100s-200s.

What ability these folks lack in one area, they excel in others... People need to learn that.

Erica said...

He made a mistake and apologized.

His opening up stem cell research actually has the potential to vastly improve the lives of people with disabilities.

Obama has chosen not to respond to the many racist jokes and slurs (most of them FAR more disturbing than the rather harmless offhand comment he made) that have been said about him throughout his campaign and presidency thus far. He doesn't whine and cry and act victimized, or demand apologies, because that would make him look weak and petty. He doesn't comment, just rises above it and moves on with his work.

I think we have all made dumb jokes in our lives. I certainly have, and I'm willing to give the guy a break.

Dream Mom said...

Erica-It's not quite the same. Making a joke about people who can't defend themselves is vastly different than someone making a comment towards another. And being the President of the U.S., whom students look up to, and making a joke about people who can't defend themselves is worse.

It's also not a joke, when you have a child who works their own lives to do mundane things and you see the effort required for them to do that. My Dear Son worked many times a day for three years to sit up and he only did it once in his entire lifetime and never did it again. Nothing in your life is easy when you have disabilities. When you see how difficult it is for a child like my DS day after day, it's as if I have lived through those challenges too. His gaffe was more than insulting but deeply hurtful.

Obams's wife was a VP at Big Academic Medical Center and both him and his wife were Harvard graduates. His wife was employed by an institution that provides medical care to disadvantaged and disabled children and people so one would hope there would be more compassion than what was displayed in an off color joke. I would expect better judgment than that from the President of the United States.

It's not o.k., and will never be o.k. to put down people with mental and physical disabilities.

As for stem cells, understand that not everyone agrees with their usage.

Surgeon in my dreams said...

I too posted on my blog yesterday the letter I sent to Mr Obama about that remark. You can read it yourself if you like, but the jist of it is that I pointed out to him that my dear grandson who was born blind and severely mentally disabled due to his mothers bone cancer she was treated for during the time she carried him because she refused to abort her son is one of the precious ones who take part in that event every year. I pointed out to him the comment came out of his mouth because it is his mindset - not just a slip of the tongue. I ended by telling him he should be ashamed. I then signed my letter along with me name and address and two phone numbers where he can reach me if he feels the need to respond.

Catherine said...

I was disappointed in Obama when I heard about the remarks. It shows how acceptable it still is to so many people to make comments and jokes about the handicapped.

I wish he would make a public apology and talk about this issue. To me, talking this way is even worse than the insults and jokes about gays, ethnic groups, women, because what these jokes are doing is hurting some of the most helpless of people, and those who are fighting these stereotypes every day. It also is a blow to family and loved ones of the disabled and handicapped.

The message still has not hit most of the population. I hear the "R" word all of the time from kids who would not even curse as freely, and never say things such as the "N" word/

On the playgrounds, I'm afraid gay insults and jokes are still prevalent. Comments like, someone or something is gay, are made quite often.

There is much that has to be done about such jokes. I have written to Obama about the situation and my feelings about it.

Domestic Designer said...

I completely agree with you. My son is a music therapy student and works with those who have mental and physical disabilities each day. The stories he shares with me show me how courageous and truly wonderful not only his students but also their families are. I admire you and your son and can only hope that this incidence will ultimately bring about some positive change in the attitudes many people appear to have.

Rhoda @ Southern Hospitality said...

Thank you for stopping by to see me, I hope you'll feel free to come back often.


Anonymous said...

I hope that all of you who are so outraged will visit the Special Olympics website ( and sign-up to Be A Fan as well as join the campaign to eliminate the "R" word.
We nmust use this opportunity to educate people on how hurtful words are and how we can each make a difference.

Gabriella said...

I agree that Obama's joke was hurtful and insensitive. On the other hand, we all sometimes put our foot in our mouth. However, I believe that he owes a public aplogy to the disabled community in general, not only to the Special Olympics association.

Megan said...

Your post from 2006 is still right on. The whole thing is still so disappointing.

Anonymous said...

It was an unfortunate remark - disappointing to many, truly hurtful to many more. It's entirely understandable that the general reaction has been so negative, especially from those like you who are such tireless advocates for the disabled.

I do think we need to hold leaders accountable for the things they say, because words matter. I also believe, though, that actions matter rather than words. Will he support legislation that will help ensure services and treatment for the disabled? Will his position on health care ultimately make it easier for families to care for their loved ones? We still have to wait and see on these things - in the final analysis, I'll be evaluating his presidency on his actions, rather than an occasional dumb remark. Doesn't mean the remark's OK, because it isn't -- but I think the sting of the remark will fade if the actions are directed toward the greater good. And for that, only time will tell.

Am catching up after being away for a couple of weeks - can't believe the fear you must have gone through at the hospital - am sending prayers that Dear Son (and you!) are on the mend from this latest episode.


Anne said...

Well said!

Rambling Round said...


Nancy Holte said...

Your post has given me a lot to think about. I'm trying to figure out how to put it into words. What President Obama said is horrible. There is no doubt about that. What I know is that, because he hasn't had to deal with a child with disabilities, he is clueless about his comment. (I'm not excusing him at all, please know that.) I also know that I have made a similar comment without even thinking. I hurt a very lovely woman and I felt horrible. I called an apologized as soon as I knew what I'd done. Trust me, I am not in the practice of making slurs of any kind, be it towards the disabled, someone of a different race, or a different religion. I just didn't even consider the implications. I think it's really a matter of education because to be quite honest, it hasn't been that many years that disabled kids have been mainstreamed in public schools and many people still don't know quite how to respond. Case in point - a few years ago I had knee surgery and for a few weeks needed to use a wheelchair when shopping, etc. In our "handicapped accessible" society, I found that we aren't really all that handicapped accessible. Had I not had that experience, I'd still be clueless. Your post is great in that it helps make people think more about the words they use. I am so sorry you and your son were hurt. I pray I'll never forget your words. Though I don't know you, I can see that you are one amazing momma.

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