What should be done with the “R” word?” That was the question at a public meeting last month, when more than 100 people from Minnesota’s disability community gathered to address the insulting use of the word retarded in today’s popular culture and media. The July 25th meeting, organized by Advocating Change Together (ACT), was part of a coordinated response to the controversial title of the Minneapolis-based Brave New Workshop’s recent show, “Rise of the Celebretards.”
About half of those attending were people with developmental disabilities who have had direct experiences with the derogatory term. Others present included parents, siblings and representatives of local nonprofit advocacy groups and service providers. BNW declined to participate.
The forum, held at the Interact Center in downtown Minneapolis, opened with a slide show streaming controversial images showing how the word “retard” is and has been widely used as a slur in popular culture. Interact members followed with a brief performance highlighting how such images and language translate into limitations placed on persons with disabilities by the broader society.
Lauretta Dawolo, news director of KFAI Radio, moderated the lively discussion that followed. Most speakers took a strong stand against the slang use of the “R” word, while some participants spoke about the backlash that can result when heavy-handed attempts to ban certain speech alienate the larger society. The general consensus of the group was that the thoughtless use of certain terms and images do more than offend persons with disabilities, their family members and friends. These portrayals also lead to justification for limiting people’s full participation in the life of the community.
Participants called for a broader campaign to combat negative references in popular culture and ended the forum by proposing some next steps to take in initiating this campaign, including the possible launch of a disability anti-defamation league.
Origins of the Controversy
The public meeting was the result of several months of activity, and one step on a longer journey. The offensive title struck a chord even before the first performance in May. Starting in April, disability activists and members of the community wrote letters, sent e-mails, and made phone calls to BNW protesting the title of their upcoming show. Though BNW refused to change the title, the volume of protest was not lost on local organizers, who began to discuss coordinated action. In May organizers took their protest to the wider community by contacting the local media and posting messages on Web forums around North America. At the 2007 Minnesota Self-Advocacy Conference, a group wrote a song of protest. These activities resulted in so many messages of protest that BNW created an online forum to handle discussion (but did not meet with protestors as they had requested). The outrage further inspired local newspapers columnists to criticize the show title.
In June, local activists concerned that the BNW’s show title reflected an alarming trend in popular culture formed an ad hoc group of individuals and organizations to develop a coordinated response. Led by ACT, the ad hoc group organized a set of activities in July that included seeking the views of the local community, organizing a public forum, and producing an educational video.
Ask the Audience
Standing outside the doors of the Brave New Workshop theater on Friday evening, July 20, Peggy Mehen, a member of Interact Theater, and Kelly Lee, an ACT board member, interviewed people attending the “Rise of the Celebretards” show. They asked more than fifteen theater-goers their views about the word “retard.” Jerry Smith of the Institute on Community Integration (ICI) at the University of Minnesota filmed the spontaneous interviews, with the assistance of Nicholas Wilkie of the Metropolitan Center for Independent Living (MCIL).
People interviewed gave a variety of responses, some of them contradictory. As Smith recounted, “One couple commented that they do not believe one should use ‘retarded’ to make fun of people with disabilities. But in their home, they said they and their children use this term all the time.” In contrast, two teenagers interviewed said they found any use of the term “horribly insulting.”
More surprising, not all those interviewed were aware that others might find the term “retard” insulting. Wilkie noted that some people changed their minds during the interviews. “I found it really intriguing that some people initially were excited about commenting, but then when they heard our plans to make a video, they either were not sure or they retracted their comments entirely.”
“These interviews suggest that we remain divided or confused as a society about how and where it is appropriate to use terms such as the ‘R’ word,” noted Smith.
What Can Be Done?
With so much energy in the room to do something more, the July 25th public discussion concluded with a brainstorm on “What now?” Some next steps proposed included a greater effort by all within the disability community to speak out more often against offensive terms and images. State Representative Shelley Madore (District 37-A) urged self-advocates to bring their concerns to the state legislature, politely demanding (not just meekly asking or begging) that the state live up to its obligations to persons with disabilities.
One next step already underway is the production of an educational video about the “R” word controversy in Minnesota. The purpose of the video, produced by ACT, will be to document the local response to BNW title, using it as a way to highlight the debate over the use of words, like “retard,” that many in the disability community find demeaning.
“The role of language in perpetuating oppression of people with disabilities is both widespread and often subtle. We want this video to be a way to bring the conversation about dignity and language to a wide audience.
Participants also endorsed the idea of a Minnesota-based disability anti-defamation league, modeled along the lines of the renowned Anti-Defamation League, whose mission is to stop the defamation of the Jewish people. The Disability ADL would coordinate local and national campaigns designed to educate the public and the media and combat negative stereotypes of and degrading language about persons with disabilities. There was even talk of a funeral to bury the “R” word.
“Nothing about this is new,” said Mary Kay Kennedy, co-director of ACT. “As we look around to see how other groups claim power, we find many terrific examples to model after. The NAACP recently had a ceremony to bury the “N” word and were very creative in staging this to create awareness. It’s all been done before and we can learn a lot from other social change movements.”
The video project has received support and major financial backing from ACT and from the new network, Self-Advocates Minnesota (SAM), with significant in-kind contributions from ICI. Other contributors include MCIL, CCP Foundation, Courage Center, Minnesota State Council on Disabilities and Access Press. Organizations who have also endorsed the goals of the project include Arc Greater Twin Cities, The Arc of Minnesota and Midway Training Services.
Filmed and directed by Smith, the video, titled “Offense Taken,” is expected to be ready for distribution before the end of 2007. Organizers plan to distribute the video to a wide array of community groups, including churches and schools.
So, “What should be done with the R word?” Clearly these local organizers are answering their own question: “Throw it out, band together and find effective ways to increase public awareness of this important issue of dignity for all.”