I wish I could come up with a title

March 26, 2009 Kyron No Comments

…that would be as wonderful as the article I have to share with you today. I feel honored to “know” the woman who expressed everything I thought when I heard about this gaffe that President Obama made. Honestly, right now I couldn’t have begun to do it the justice Johanna has. I feel blessed to count her among my “friends” – someone I’ve never met but know in a heartbeat I could reach out to. It’s what makes us special parents even more special. An extended family as it were. I’d like to share this small piece by one of our own, our extended family. Johanna Mattern Allen.

Rethink your outlook on the disabled

By Johanna Mattern Allen

Posted: Mar. 23, 2009

Words cannot begin to express how disappointing it was to hear President Barack Obama’s Special Olympics gaffe on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” on Thursday.

But it’s not just Obama who needs to take a hard look at this. His remark on one of the most popular television shows in America is indicative of a culture that is all too comfortable disparaging individuals with a disability – I might add, individuals who never would disparage him or anyone.

Since he so decidedly put his foot in his mouth, here’s my four-point plan for the president to make reparations for the cultural damage he caused last week:
* Pony up beaucoup bucks for the Special Olympics cause.

* Create a cabinet position for disability now. There currently isn’t even a policy adviser for disability since Kareem Dale moved to an arts leadership position. With a disability population in the United States of 50 million-plus, and growing especially as our population ages, we need disability experts to work alongside our president.

* Create positions for self-advocates in the White House so the president and the world never forget about people who have to work harder than he ever can dream of working to achieve what they do.

* Urge every college, university and high school in America to teach disability history/cultural competency.

Obama isn’t the only smart (read: well-rounded intellectual) person I know who knows jack about disability. And not all of us are as lucky as me to have my son, Jack (who has Down syndrome), for a teacher.

It’s totally cool to not know, but do something about it instead of getting defensive, making excuses or ignoring it. Here’s my simple, pain-free, four-point plan for the rest of us:

* Read some disability history. Read Paul K. Longmore.

* When interacting with an individual with a disability, presume competence. Always. Just because someone moves, communicates, sits, eats, breathes, walks, hears, sees, thinks or problem-solves differently, or doesn’t do any of these things, he or she still experiences life, contributes to the world, has feelings and thrives and depends on relationships with others.

* Don’t defend offensive language. Just because it comfortably rolls off one’s tongue in mixed company or it’s self-deprecating or we’ve always said it, that doesn’t mean it’s right. The next time you think “we’re being too sensitive,” think about how you sound clinging to an outdated term and defending it after the minority group being maligned has asked you to stop. If you need to be self-deprecating, use a thesaurus. Find the word or phrase you like and practice it before you need it – that’s how habits get broken. Language influences culture, culture influences policy and, in my son’s case, he can hear you (and so can I).

* Give us a break. No really. Take the time to be with a parent of a child with a disability or an individual with a disability. Encourage your children to have a play date with a child with a disability. Challenge the idea of why you might not have a friend with a disability. Reach out in friendship to those of us who are most marginalized. The great secret about disability is that each one of us is only a heartbeat away from it at all times.

The great tragedy of past generations is that there have been unspoken divides between the cultures of the disabled and those who are not. In the culture of disability, we’re accustomed to cheering on individuals with great challenges to help them overcome great obstacles and odds.

We in the disability community know those of you who aren’t disabled are able to learn more and know you are capable of using inclusive language and joining us in a 21st-century way of thinking.

Johanna Mattern Allen lives in Milwaukee. March 31 is the Special Olympics’ “Spread the Word to End the Word Day,” a national day of awareness calling for America to stop and reconsider the use of the “r” word: retard/ed. Go to www.r-word.org

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