You may have heard that President Barack Obama made a joke about the Special Olympics on the Jay Leno Show . President Obama was describing his own bowling, and in a remark meant to be humble and self-deprecating, he said, "It was like Special Olympics or something.”
I am very heartened to see that people noticed that the joke was unfair. That shows a sense of caring in our culture for people with disabilities. I will not be happy to see the news media or pundits jump on the remark to criticize Obama in a nasty or opportunistic way.
As a disability advocate, this is my take on the situation:
President Obama was wrong to joke about the Special Olympics. That remark was unkind and hurtful. People with disabilities have enough problems, suffering, and daily humiliations in their life, that they should never have to bear the brunt of jokes by enlightened people.
Though, instead of jumping on Obama's mistake, let's be glad that he issued a quick apology. Let's hope it causes him reflection, and causes him to think a little bit more about people with disabilities who may need his help and support. And, let's hope that the country, and ourselves as individuals, can use the energy of the moment as a time of self-reflection.
It is ironic to me that this mistake happens now. Here in my own community of Long Island, I have recently been bombarded with the joking use of the word "retard." And, I was starting to think we needed some public education on human dignity and polite conversation. I was starting to think: The next time I hear teenagers saying that word in a pizza place to taunt each other, should I jump in and correct them: And, how would I explain it to them?
For me, with a cursory reading of the conversation between Jay Leno and President Obama, I think that Obama did not use that phrase on purpose to put down people with disabilities. His use of the word came from a different place. It comes from the place inside all of us where we are worried that we might be out-of-place. We fear that we are dumb, or less than perfect, or different, so that in a moment of joking we stumble over the pain with words like "Special Olympics" in Obama's case, and in the cruder cases I have heard in Long Island "retarded"--an unkind slang word for people with mental disabilities. I find it interesting insight into Obama, how he positions himself and how he feels about himself.
First of all, I think that in some way, President Obama made a joke like that, because he knows that some people will resent him as an over-achiever and the champion. Anyone who gets in a high position always has detractors who are jealous, or who will sum up the great person as conceited or arrogant. Obama thought a quick way to deflect this was with a self-deprecating comment about his bowling. Being self-referential to the Special Olympics is the kind of humor that we see on television, and that bubbles up in our culture all of the time. It is not a great thing, though it is there. Now, that we have seen it played out as an elected official says it on television, perhaps we will all realize how unnecessary a joke it is.
Second of all, I think that as someone who is so smart and successful, and constantly challenged by the immense problems of the world, Obama probably worries if he is good enough, perfect enough, and up to the challenge. And, the comment, made in jest, is probably some of his insecurity bubbling up.
Only tangentially related to the President Obama comment, is another pattern I see in my hometown of Long Island a lot. And, that is the "crazy" comment. Again, it is the flip side of our worst fears about ourselves. As adults in this structured, uptight culture, the worst fear we have is that we could somehow be confused, or foolish, or crazy. And, when our friends or ourselves make the slightest of mistakes, someone is likely to say, "What are you crazy?" The language and nervous energy surrounding any sign that someone might be mentally ill is surely a sign of immense, collective insecurity about our competence, and our need to be constantly strong, perfect and vigilant.
When a politician, sports figure, or celebrity makes a mistake, it is broadcast into the huge world of our irresponsible and hyped up media. So, that instead of the moment being instructive, as it could be, it often becomes a hyped-up, frenzy, which then feeds into all of our consumer impulses, and gives the corporate media something easy to sensationalize. When it is a politician, it also gives all the pundits and party bureaucrats a chance to simplify politics to attacks about moments of missteps and mishaps.
I hope that people will instead take this moment of President Obama's mistake to react in a more responsible and proactive way. President Obama, himself, has begun a more healthy process by noting his support for the wonderful work of the Special Olympics. I hope that President Obama continues to make amends by now studying people-first language and the needs of people with disabilities. And, I hope that every person and media outlet that takes the time to criticize President Obama, uses this as a learning moment, and never again looks at his/her friend in a goofy hat and says, "You belong in the Special Olympics", "You are crazy", or "You look retarded."