Intellectual disability is NOT funny

Arc works very hard to change attitudes and policies to improve the quality of life for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. We have learned from the people we serve and their families that language does matter—it can cut human beings down, or it can build them up.

That’s why Arc responded when “Tropic Thunder,” opened August 13 in theaters across the country. The president of the Arc of the United States, along with representatives of Special Olympics, the Down Syndrome Congress and other disability organizations, met with DreamWorks studios and Paramount Pictures early in August. They voiced concern about the movie’s depiction of a character called Simple Jack and the film’s frequent use of the word “retard” and other insulting terms used to describe this character. DreamWorks and Paramount pulled an offensive website and other promotional pieces, but refused to make any changes to the film.

Locally, the Arc of Minnesota and its chapters suggested the public boycott the film to protest its use of language that demeans people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and decreases the quality of their lives by making them the focal point of attempted humor.

Jean Bender, president of the Arc of Minnesota Board of Directors, said, “As representatives of Minnesota organizations promoting the rights and human acceptance of persons with disabilities, we take these degrading depictions of people with intellectual disabilities to heart.

“My son David has significant cognitive and medical disabilities, and he requires assistance for activities most of us consider routine. And yet, he is as involved and included in his community as his neighbors, friends and family. “David walks the neighbors’ puppy every day, and assists several neighbors with their recycling. His circle of friends is large; he had more pals attend his graduation party this spring than his sister did at hers. This fall David plans to begin volunteering at our local Humane Society and our neighborhood community center.

“David works harder than his siblings (and most adults) every day to improve his level of independence. To make fun of his challenges when he works so hard to contribute to his family, neighbors, and community is offensive and inexcusable.”

Tom Judd, chairman of the board of directors for Arc Greater Twin Cities, wrote a letter to the editor to the Star Tribune published August 14, 2008. He said “Use of the term ‘retard’ in the film is intolerant, disrespectful and insensitive and every bit as offensive as an ethnic or racial slur…we would encourage DreamWorks and the movie industry to establish a social responsibility review board to use the power of filmmaking to not only entertain, but also to increase awareness and sensitivity. It is possible. Remember ‘Rain Man’ and ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?’ Quality films are not made at the expense of vulnerable people.”

“As a Native American and a person with a disability, I’ve been the brunt of racial slurs as well as having been called a ‘retard’. Neither feels good,” said Hunter Sargent, a self-advocate and board member for the Arc of Minnesota. “I hate the label ‘retard’ because it puts me down rather than emphasizing what I can do in spite of my disability. I have a disability—my disability doesn’t have me, my grandmother always used to say.

“Arc Greater Twin Cities and the Arc of Minnesota have been a huge part of my life, helping me learn how to be an effective self-advocate. Arc changed its name nearly two decades ago to eliminate the term ‘retarded’ because it is so offensive. When is the rest of the world going to catch up?” Sargent said.

Comments on the blogosphere, however, have suggested people who are outraged should “lighten up” and are taking the movie too seriously.

“Movies and media that continue to use offensive terms and portrayals counteract the positive work being done to make this world a more welcoming place for persons with intellectual disabilities,” said Bender. “People with disabilities have been the brunt of tasteless jokes and stereotypes for too long, and it must stop. If more people knew the truth about those with intellectual disabilities, they would not find this movie funny at all.”

Pam Carlson is the director of community relations for Arc of the Greater Twin Cities.