Thursday, July 14, 2011

A blog about a blog...

This week, the Australian Prime Minister released information about a proposed carbon tax. People got all fluffy and red-faced about what it could mean, and there was wall to wall coverage for a couple of days.

What has this got to do with autism you ask? Well...

One of the bits of coverage came from an (almost) astonishingly brilliant blogger called Heathen Scripture. It's a witty, insightful, ruthless piece of writing which I would invite you all to read, but I'm fairly sure than many of you will (as I did) baulk at the first paragraph. It's got a bunch of colourful language in it, in case you are one who is offended by traditional swears and curses. I warned you, OK?

This blogger, a brilliant mind in my opinion, leads me to a question... is it ever OK to make fun of people with disabilities?

And some other questions... like, is 'retard' a nice word or a nasty word? Is it fair to use a distasteful mental image to wittily prove a point, even if that mental image relies on stereotypes of vulnerable folk? Is colloquialism an excuse for offensiveness? Is offensiveness a word...?

It's a bit depressing to read the comments following the carbon tax post.  Many of them tried to point out the potential offence (and laziness of using such an ugly image to make a witty point, many of them did not, some of them actually defended the use of the word 'retard' on the basis that it means other things apart from the one we in the world of special needs all hate. Many (probably the majority) chose to use the 'r' word themselves, to illustrate their point.

People I know, and have a lot of respect for, were not affronted in the least. And it really makes me pause and think (and feel a bit sick).

Perhaps I have lost my sense of humour completely. It's possible.There's plenty sucking the giggles out of the everyday around here. We work pretty hard at keeping things light and breezy, but looming court cases and visits to hospital and all that... these are not things that make me crack random smiles.

I just can't work out why it is funny/appropriate/necessary to evoke a distasteful image of people with disabilities to make a pejorative point. It seems like a cheap, nasty shot. I can understand that if your life has not been influenced in some way by disability that you might not care much... and maybe it's that perspective that makes me the saddest.

Today, I thought (and said on FB) 'What if we replaced the word retard with black person or lesbian or Chinese person? Would it be any more palatable to me to laugh at those folk while making a point about politics?'

No, it wouldn't. Not to me at least. Me, who may or may not have lost her ability to 'take a joke'.

It just isn't humorous to me at all to poke fun at vulnerable people, directly or indirectly. Nor is it helpful to associate images of vulnerable people with hopelessness, depravity or stupidity.

I don't think it's about my sense of humour. I think it's about my kid.

Billy is a legend. Don't get me wrong. But there are lots of things about him that can (and do) make people smirk.

Kids, who generally don't know any better, have been known to laugh at him as he chats away to himself, walks funny, struggles with motor tasks that others find dead easy. As his mother, I find it quite easy to initiate a conversation with said children about difference, acceptance, understanding and the fact that I don't have a problem standing on their little toes until their eyes water a bit. I've been known to death stare adults who give Billy pitying glances or those other looks that translate as 'Jeez, I'm glad that's not my kid.'

Because here's the thing.

Billy does not choose to be different to the average seven year old. He just is. He doesn't choose to have no control over his arms and face at inopportune moments. He just doesn't. He isn't trying to sound like Stephen Fry, it's just how he learned to talk.

It's not funny. It just is. He is not a joke. He just is.

I have nowhere near the writing talent of Heathen Scripture. I bow to his ability to both understand and commentate on current events in such a razor sharp and witty way. If I was his Mum, I'd be dead proud. Seriously, I think he's good. So good, that the last thing I would want is for him to be limited in what he can achieve.

I guess I just want the same thing for my child, special needs and all. And I'm guessing if I let people laugh at him because he looks/thinks/is different, I'm eroding his chances of success.

Or maybe I just need to teach him to 'take a joke', even if the joke is on him.

Now I feel really sick.


Katherine Lyall-Watson said...

Valerie, this is a beautiful reflection. Thank you. I've been thinking about the issue ever since you raised it on facebook.

It really concerned me that I'd read that first para and noticed the swears and the coarse imagery, but had completely glossed over the word 'retard'. For me, it was a word that had lost its connotations of disability until you reminded me of its origins.

I read it and could easily have replaced 'retard' with 'dickhead' - another word that doesn't have resonance with any particular group and describes attitudes or behaviour rather than ability.

I hope that most of us who skimmed over a word that still carries so much weight and pain for many, did so because it's a word that has changed its meaning over time, and not because we were heartless. Careless, yes, but not intentionally.

You are a skilled and wonderful writer and Billy is a beautiful child. The joke should never be on him.

imawestie said...

The only acceptable use of the word "retard" is in relation to timing an engine.

So unless you're a mechanic talking about when the motor goes bang!, you have no reason using that word. It's just been hijacked too far.

I agree with Katherine - using a derogatory word to describe someone's attitude is fair game. Using a derogatory word to describe their skill, ability, birth, sexuality, belief systems ... is not.

Sorry but I stopped reading pretty quick... will go back and read the lot now!

Dana Meijler said...

I've not read this blog but I will, but I agree, it's one thing to be snarky and another to insult people due to things like attitudes. But totally another to use a word which is so derogatory to a group of people who are vulnerable already. Perhaps we are hyper-sensitive to it because we are dealing with children who have special needs. I know when it comes to my daughter I am a mother lion and even more so because she has special needs. I cannot stand it even when I hear the whiff of someone making fun of her or any child who is cognitively impaired. If I had read this post you can bet a few expletives would be flying Heathen Scripture's way.