In high school, I hated the word “retarded.” If anyone said it in my presence, I immediately corrected them, asking that they either stop using the word altogether or at least avoid it while in front of me. It was a word that I recognized was capable of great hurt and offense.
Now, coming to the end of my freshman year of college, my attitude has somewhat changed. Do not misunderstand me. I do not approve of the use of “retarded” in connection to anyone or anything. It is a slur, and as with most slurs, I believe people should avoid saying it regardless of the circumstance.
But I have noticed that, despite how aware Vassar students may be that certain words and phrases should remain unsaid, it has yet to make individuals any more tolerant or accepting, and has yet to result in any meaningful change for disabled communities.
Moreover, unlike with other forms of activism, I have observed that the fight against ableism ends at word-policing. The same people who post about how we shouldn’t use words like “retarded” or “crazy” or “lunatic” ignore the systemic violence that has disproportionately affected disabled individuals.
While I have seen Vassar students correct others for using objectively offensive phrases, I have yet to see any outrage regarding the high instances of police brutality against disabled individuals, frequent infanticide, the prominence of ableist eugenics, the continued demonization and dehumanization of the disabled in popular media or institutional violence against disabled and autistic bodies (The Daily Beast, “Police Brutality Hidden Victims: The Disabled,” 09.08.14).
For anti-racist movements, change does not end with not saying “negro” in public. For anti-homophobic movements, change does not end with not saying “gay” as a pejorative. Then why is it that, frequently, outside of those within the communities themselves, mainstream disability activism ends with not saying the word “retarded”?
To be completely fair, there exist a fair amount of disability rights organizations that do meaningful work to better the lives of differently-abled individuals. Groups such as the Autistic Self Advocacy Network and the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities both serve as examples of organizations that do stunning work and have a real impact on millions of individuals.
However, unlike most civil rights movements, disabled individuals have had difficulty achieving intersectionality and receiving outside support. Many of the people who fought for marriage equality were straight and many of the people who fought for integration were white. The struggle for civil rights of disabled citizens has suffered similar setbacks in representation.
But when neurotypical people talk about autism or able-bodied people talk about disability rights, they either ignore the broader, more important issues facing the community or completely disregard the voices of the individuals they supposedly support. Their activism often drowns out or discursively effaces the experiences we live on a day-to-day basis.
Two weeks ago, I wrote about the organization Autism Speaks and its systematic diminishing of lived experiences. The existence of organizations such as Autism Speaks and their pervasiveness in discourse regarding the autistic community underscores the extent of these issues.
In the article, I wrote, “Autism Speaks is, at best, the most elaborate con ever created. At worst, it is a hate group designed to discredit those with autism. They demonize those they claim to represent in order to steal your money. And they use that money to cure an imaginary disease, to fix people who don’t need fixing and to spread more ignorance and fear.” (The Miscellany News, “Autism Speaks diminishes lived experience,” 04.06.2016). While I have already discussed the problematic nature of groups such as Autism Speaks in other articles, the issue goes further than that.
For many individuals, this problematic behavior often delves into something that disability activists refer to as “inspiration porn”: feel-good stories often centering around disabled individuals that unintentionally serve to dehumanize the subject as well as the community at large.
I have noticed that many individuals who guilt others for saying certain words, especially neurotypical or able-bodied people, often like or share this kind of content without thinking about it. It is exactly this type of content that requires critical analysis, just like any other piece of problematic literatue or media.
I saw possibly one of the worst cases of inspiration porn in USA Today recently. The article, titled “Cheerleader surprises everyone with prom pick,” is about Kenzi Miller, a high school senior and popular cheerleader who asked Cameron Biagiotti, an 18-year old with Williams Syndrome, to prom.
This piece might appear heartwarming, it might even be based off a genuinely nice story, but I challenge you to read some of these excerpts without raising a few eyebrows. “They’re not trying to be rude … They just say, ‘You want to take him to senior prom?’”
“Senior prom is senior prom. And Miller would be any boy’s dream date.”
“She could have picked anyone to go to prom with.”
This story might seem harmless, but I ask you how you would feel if you discovered that someone you’ve known for years, someone you believe to legitimately and genuinely like and enjoy spending time with you, pretended to be your friend because they felt guilty for you. Because they think that you are retarded. Because they don’t see you as more than your condition.
The media has conditioned us to believe that we ought to befriend disabled people out of pity and has conditioned disabled people to believe that their relationships are built upon a lie, that lie being one of mutual respect. It is exactly this strain of communicative brainwashing that effectively erases the lived experiences of the disabled community, while inherently dehumanizing them by simplifying complex issues and day-to-day struggles.
I have grown up fearing that none of my friends like me, that they only pretend to enjoy spending time with me because they can tell I’m on the spectrum and they believe I am disabled. I, along with many differently-abled individuals, have been socialized to believe this. I understand that it’s irrational. I understand that it is more than likely untrue. But it is what society has taught me to believe.
Inspiration porn has done more damage to disabled people than any one word has ever done. While I don’t like the word “retarded,” I have never felt personally victimized because someone used it.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. It does matter that every day, disabled people face innumerable indignities, from violence to dehumanization, and very few people pay any attention to this reality.
Political correctness has failed the disabled community. It has failed the disabled community because instead of becoming a method of increasing acceptance, it has become a distraction from the issues that really matter.