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21 February, 2010

Regarding Developmental Disabilities

I have worked with adults with disabilities for three years now. Down's Syndrome, Angelmans, Cornelia DeLange, Autism, Asperger's, Cerebral Palsy, etc. I started working at the facility that employs me, using my extensive college training in Human Services that, in the end, I found could only be used as simple guidelines rather than rules when dealing with real people. The job is so much more complicated and the people and situations so much more complex than the Law and Ethics guidelines and Empathetic Communication Handbooks can begin to portray.

I also learned about the human spirit, the innate want to belong and to feel useful to society, the creativity and compassion that occurs when the complications of abstract thinking and the pressures to be at the top of the corporate ladder are simply not important. These people aren't dumb for being hugely excited over a $5-$30 paycheck for two weeks of work, their joy is the essence of human experience-the joy of a job well done no matter what the reward. It's a beautiful and refreshing outlook that I am lucky enough to witness five days a week at my job.

None of the people I work with are truly "disabled" unless they themselves think they are. I got that bit of wisdom from a consumer confined to a wheel chair with cerebral palsy who also holds a job, rents an apartment, and has a wife.

I used to be like all the other "normal" people who haven't been educated or haven't had exposure to people with developmental disabilities. I would say that this guy or this lady that did something stupid was "retarded." I used to think Carlos Mencia was funny when he talked about arguing with a disabled person over why they get to cut to the front of the line at Disneyland.

Our society breeds this kind of attitude and misinformation because the surprisingly large population of disabled people is kept out of the spotlight. In movies, they are always portrayed the same way, functioning enough to not make the audience uncomfortable, but slow enough to be endearing. "Cutesy," in a way. At school, they have segregated classes and lunch rooms.

As advocacy groups run by the consumers themselves continue to grow and get a voice and as organizations like Special Olympics gets more exposure, there has been some progress. (Almost) gone are the days when families would hide a disabled family member in a locked room when company came over or send a child to a state facility. The "R" word is now a word that any public official or media personality will be rebuked for using, although this usually leads to a firestorm against "those P.C. assholes" usually with many expletives and the use of the "R" word itself. (How often have I spoken up against the use of the "R" word in internet forums, only to have some brilliant mind tell me that "People who don't like the word 'retard' are 'retarded'").

However, there is still a very long way to go. Which is why it is so hard to hear people like Sarah Silverman exploit the condition of disabled people for schock value and then see that there are people that actually support this kind of behavior. At the end of the above mentioned article, the writer of the HuffPost article, Alex Leo, pretty much throws his support behind Silverman by mentioning that "we kindly disagree" with the AOL co-founder, Steve Case saying that Silverman is not funny and mentions that she received a standing ovation from half of the audience. A standing ovation. making jokes out of using the "R" word for her own gain.

And the comments below the article talk about how the people that found her offensive are "closed minded." This is what is so troubling, that people actually think that making fun of disabled people is some open-minded, free-thinking, bold and funny ideal.

Our society still has a long way to go before people like Silverman are finally put in their place on the margins of the media and largely ignored or rebuked for their ignorant, bigoted behavior. Hopefully that won't be long.

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