Sticks and Stones

Local organizations take offense and respond quickly to title of Brave New Workshop’s latest show Can it really be trendy […]

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Local organizations take offense and respond quickly to title of Brave New Workshop’s latest show

Can it really be trendy to use the “R” word? Apparently so, at least in pop culture. Certain celebrities, their media watchers, the pop music scene, and numerous internet blogs are using the word “retard,” alone or as a suffix to other words, to mock people viewed as foolish. Last month, Minneapolis-based theater troop Brave New Workshop (BNW) joined in, titling their show that spoofs celebrities “Rise of the Celebretards.”

The old adage is that words cannot hurt, but groups given negative labels know differently. Words can and do lead to hurtful things like limited access to economic and social opportunities and denial of political rights. That’s why there is another trend emerging: a nationwide reaction of self-advocates, their friends and families against this usage of the “R” word.

Quick Response

Response to the offensive title came quickly; BNW was deluged by e-mails and letters from outraged individuals and groups. For example, Mound resident George Linkert wrote on his Web page, “This is wrong …. use of the word retard in this context is inappropriate, insensitive, insulting, and offensive.”

In a letter to the BNW, many of Minnesota’s leading disability-rights organizations weighed in, “Using the word “retard” in any reference legitimizes the oppression and ridicule many people experience on a daily basis. When you attempt to ridicule [celebrities] by identifying them as “retarded,” you also ridicule those who have been so labeled throughout their lives and make more difficult their struggle to be valued for their contributions and commitments ….” The letter was signed by Self-Advocates Minnesota (network of 30 self-advocacy groups), Advocating Change Together (ACT), The Arc of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration (ICI), Minnesota Disability Law Center, Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities, Minnesota State Council on Disability, People First Minnesota, and Access Press.

Kim Keprios, CEO of Arc Greater Twin Cities, wrote to the BNW, “A history of using countless offensive words in sketches and titles does not justify slurring vulnerable people and using them as the butt of the ‘joke.’ By using the word, the Brave New Workshop appears uninformed, close minded and/or insensitive. Worse yet, some people may conclude that calling others retards is acceptable social behavior.”

On May 13, Star Tribune columnist Doug Grow (“Brave New Workshop’s Satire Title Hits a Nerve”) asked if the BNW has “gone a step beyond too far?”

A Pioneer Press editorial on May 18 (“A Bully Word”) called the BNW show title “stupid, unfunny, and offensive.”

Responses also came from outside Minnesota. This author posted the show title on SibNet (listserv for and about adult brothers and sisters of people with special health, developmental, and emotional needs at www.siblingsup provoking protest e-mails to the BNW from around the country.

Don Meyer, director of the Sibling Support Project in Seattle and a former special education teacher in Hopkins, Minnesota, wrote, “As a young teacher….one of our favorite entertainment venues was Dudley Rigg’s “Brave New Workshop.”… I could count on comedy that was, well, brave and new. Consequently, it pains me to see you are staging a show that is called ‘Rise of the Celebretards.’ If you don’t know how offensive this title is to people with disabilities and their families, try this: replace the “retard” in Celebretard with the n-word or other racial or ethnic slur of your choice. It really is that offensive. Instead of being brave and new, BNW is taking a giant step into the bad old days of the 50s.”

Marisa Wiesman, of St. Paul, agreed, “It hurts me deeply to hear people use the terms ‘retard’ and ‘retarded’….[It] disappoints me to see that the ‘R’ word is so carelessly and publicly used in a community as progressive and supportive to people with disabilities as the Twin Cities.” Cassie Quinlan from Massachusetts challenged the BNW’s comedic sense, writing, “Seems to me like a cheap shot – a way to have a cool, catchy title to promote your show ….” And Nora Fox Handler of Seattle suggested that BNW “…try a word that does not offend people with disabilities and their families.”

Response from BNW

The BNW defended the title by highlighting their mission of producing “original social and political satire.” In reply to one of the letters, Erin Farmer, BNW’s director of marketing/audience development said, “…we sometimes use language that many consider offensive, for the purposes of satire and parody, or simply to mimic bad-taste cultural references as a mirror of society.”

In response to another letter, Julia Schmidt, BNW’s president, indicated that they were “considering doing a community dialogue around this issue.” They have since set up a Web-based forum.

Protestors noted the irony of the forum’s ground rules, which state, “… We want to make sure the discussion remains civil and productive, so please, no personal jabs at any other participants ….”

Next Steps, Local and National

Many individuals and organizations are interested in doing more to combat the rising use of the “R” word in media and society.

On May 30, representatives of ACT, the Arc of Minnesota, the ICI, and the Metropolitan Center for Independent Living met to discuss a coordinated response to the BNW situation. The group recommended a three-step project. The first step will be for ACT and other groups to host a community dialogue and invite BNW staff to participate. The purpose of the dialogue will be to respectfully share views and clarify issues. The meeting will be videotaped and used for the second step: The creation of a short, educational video. The purpose of the video will be to raise challenging questions about the “R” word, but not to decide the issue for viewers. The third step will be the development of a tool kit (including the video) that community groups, schools, and churches can use to host discussions.

Other local groups are working to educate schools and local media outlets about the “R” word and provide them with inclusive, “person first” language guidelines. For example, Joe Bissen, sports copy editor of the Pioneer Press and parent of a child with a disability, has been charged by the paper’s newsroom style committee to draft a proposal on reporting about people with developmental disabilities.

In recent years, groups around the country have successfully fought the use of the “R” word. Several major media outlets, including Fox network and the New York Post, have adopted policies against its use. Many states have taken action to remove the “R” word and similar offensive terms from all state laws and policy documents.

Organizers in the Twin Cities will contact counterparts around the country about working cooperatively on this issue of oppressive language, perhaps by forming something like a “Persons With Disabilities Anti-Defamation League.”

Every protestor interviewed for this article expressed hope that this controversy will lead to a positive outcome, whereby our disability community can illustrate the powerful role of language in defining and creating an accepting society.

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