Tuesday, August 12, 2008


To be sure I have been disturbed by what I have read about the stereotypical representation of people with disabilities in Tropic Thunder. I have written against it but not been surprised by it. The ignorance about the people who have intellectual disabilities is often greater than the ignorance attributed to them. So, while I protest, I do not do so with shock.

What disturbs me, almost more, is the stereotypical representations of people with intellectual disabilities that I read in blog posts and comments from people purporting to disagree with the Stiller stereotype.

In many presentations I have read descriptions of people with disabilities as ...



cannot defend themselves.

Really? This does not describe the vast majority of people with intellectual disabilities that I know. To be sure this is a minority with vast differences within it, like all minorities their differences from one another is often as great as their difference from the norm. Even so, to suggest that people with intellectual disabilities are solely dependant upon others for their protection is what has led to their constant victimization. The image of the 'helpless' has led to the creation of the 'helpless.'

Indeed, I have seen incredible ablility to speak up, speak out, speak sense in many self advocate groups. In my own agency, just days ago, a self advocate walked into the Executive Directors office with a complaint - he expected to be heard, he expected his words to bring change. He did not do this with help. He did not do this with the encouragement of others. He did this on his own. A powerful man, a confident voice, all wrapped in the personhood of someone with an intellectual disability.

In many of the comments I get the sense that people should be guilted by pity into abandoning the use of the word 'retard'. I do not want this. I do not wish this. And if we win with this arguement we will lose so much else. I demand the retraction of the word retard not our of pity for a lesser but out of respect for an equal. People with disabilities can equally feel social pain, therefore social pain inflicted upon them is equal to the social pain inflicted on anyone else. Stop it because it is wrong to purposely hurt others ... that is the only reason.

Parents, if your child is as helpless or as vulnerable as many state - then this is more often a failure of parenting than it is a characteristic of disability. It is the duty of all parents to teach their children self reliance in the face of bigotry and bullying. It is the duty of parents to teach their children how to manage in the real world, not a world of pity and compassionate tolerance. Teach your children about bullys and bullying. Teach your children to value themselves as people with disabilities. Teach your children about diversity and their role in the world. Teach them to withstand the slings and arrows of walking down hallways and sidewalks. That's the job of parents.

Yes we fight bigotry and intolerance. We do this with protests. We do this with placards. With do this with letters to the editor. We also fight bigotry by instilling pride into the backbones of people with disabilities. Every minority has won rights only after it came to recognize the inherant value of difference. Gay Pride. Black is Beautiful. Out of the kitchens and into the cabinet.

So decry any form of stereotypical representation of people with disabilities. That done by others. That done by ourselves.



Glee said...

I agree again Dave. I spent six years in psychotherapy to rid myself of the brainwashing that I was "less than" which led me to put myself second to and to unduly value abloids.

Everyone has natural defences but the disabled have it knocked out of them by abloids. When I was little my Mum, when I told her that someone had teased me re my disability said "they don't mean it". She was merely trying to make me feel better but the result was that I ended up believing that my feelings of hurt were wrong. WRONG!

PwD must be assisted to be stronger than the average bear as we have to bear more.


Anonymous said...

Agreed -- we should not be trying to win this argument through the reinforcement of stereotypes that have already caused so much harm. That's the kind of logic that the "Jerry's kids" campaign indulges in -- and although they've obviously raised money with that strategy, they've also caused a lot of damage to the image of people with disabilities along the way.

I think it would go a long way to defeating the image of people with intellectual disabilities as "helpless" "vulnerable" etc. if there were more visible spokespeople from among the self-advocates I've heard you speak of. Is there any one WITH an intellectual disability who runs their own blog site, for example?

(If not ... surely there must be someone out there with the skills to do it, maybe not as prolifically as some bloggers, maybe not with fancy vocabulary and convoluted sentences, but with clarity of expression and with passion. Maybe they just need the right support and encouragement ... the kind of tutoring that you receive from time to time in dealing with technology, for example :-) )

I, for one, would welcome the chance to hear more often directly from people with intellectual disabilities themselves, not only from their parents or other allies.

It could also go a long way in getting through to people if the public could hear people with intellectual disabilities themselves saying, "that word hurts me and I want you to stop using it." Many of the people who use that word probably assume that people with intellectual disabilities aren't even capable of understanding it and thus can't be hurt by it. Can't we prove them wrong more directly?

Stephen said...

Absolutely,on the Tropic Thunder thing the BBC have just put up a report on it at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/7555603.stm (sorry don't know how to hyperlink it!). Particularly disturbing is Robert Downey's comment that"it's also any artist's right to say and do whatever they want to do" - excuse me! So if the end result of your action is to incite hatred and violence against a group of people you have some god given right to express your great love of irony - i cannot think of sufficient expletives to use tothat kind of arrogance.

Wonder Woman said...

My husband just walked through and suggested that we counter attack by printing "Don't go all Ben Stiller on me!" t-shirts. Another wrong will not right anything, but I have to tell you that it is funny thinking about how it would make him feel with his name replacing that offensive word. Yet I know that it would offend one of us, but he would probably take it as a compliment.

FAB said...

Agreed Dave- I've found myself chiming in on several blogs who protest the movie but talk about people with Intellectual disabilities as weak and defenseless. One was booing Ben Stiller for picking on people who can't speak for themselves, what a crock! I'd love to see more self advocates involved, we don't need to fight on thier "behalf", we should be fighting side by side!

Carolyn Kintisch said...

I agree with youfor the most part, Dave. But I have been working with the special needs community for twenty years, as a parent, as an advocate, and as a teacher. And while there are many peole with disabilities who *can* fight back, who *can* self-advocate, there are still plenty of people who cannot. Yet. I'm thinking of the children. I'm thinking of the self-advocates-in-training. I'm thinking of those for whom, like any others their age, peer acceptance is the be-all and end-all of their lives.

Our society enacted laws to help minorities and women in the workplace; we've enacted laws to help the disabled with accessibility. We didn't leave these groups to deal with it on their own. They *were* vulnerable without the support these laws gave them. Children with special needs require that support too.

Jeff said...

Dave it's not often I take exception to what you say but today may be the day. While I do agree with you there have been some posts that are a bit to protective but my guess is those may be from parents of young children who can't speak for themselves.
But let me ask you, why is it we are still fighting this fight? Why do we not have more outspoken self advocates? Why are so many still fitting into the stereotype as the head off to work at the agency sheltered work shop? Hmmm?

You know I really found it interesting that you feel it's the parents that are holding individuals with intellectual disabilities back. You know it's parents that pushed to start your agency...it's parents that fought for the civil rights that individuals have today, it's parents that started the groups that are leading the protest, it's partents that fought for education,

Now exactly what have the professionals accomplished in the way of progress? Help me out on this one....as a former CEO who left because the professionals can't see past a 20 year old model and their government funding I am all ears. So yes I have walked in the Professionals shoes also. Fill me in Dave as to why we have not made more progress on this front with all the MSW'a and PHD's leading the charge? Hmmmm?

Oh, and Andrea, MSW....lot's of blogs out there by individuals with intellectual disabilities. AZ Chapman is a great young lady that has a great blog. Look a little harder...


rickismom said...

Now I know what was bothering me about half of the anti-Tropic Thunder blogs that I read. If anyone would call Ricki "retard" I think they'd find out pretty quick that this population is not one that can't speak up for themselves......

Michelle said...

My daughter has Down syndrome, and IS innocent and unable to defend herself. She's only 15 months old. At this time? She has no voice - Yet.

You better believe, as her parents, we will help her find her voice as she gets older. But for now - we're her voice.

Gaina said...

Here, here! This is why I suggested self defence classes in response to a comment in the original blog. You never want to have to use what you learned, but it sure feels good to know you can if you're even unfortunate enough to get into a situation requiring a more decisive approach. You also carry yourself differently which makes people think twice about messing with you - you don't have to come off as aggressive, just quietly able to handle yourself.

When I used to work with children with PMLD (profound multiple learning difficulties, the UK term) the greatest problem we had was helping the children to grow by encouraging parents to expect the behaviour any parent would expect of a child that age, PMLD or not.

We took our kids shopping, swimming ( where we taught them to dress themselves as far as possible), they were taught to have manners in company and be aware of affect their actions had on other people - basically what you want any child to learn if they are to be a successful adult.

It was amazing to see the smile on a child's face when I taught her to tie her shoe-laces or to see the the kids who ate a cookie they had baked. They though that they couldn't do these things before because their parents had never let them try.

I would love to see 'learning difficulties' presented as a 'sliding scale' - dyslexia is a learning difficulty but people with that learning difficulty have as much right and ability to prosper as anyone else, so why should a person with Down's Syndrome be any different? That really bends people's brains and makes them re-asses their whole attitude!

Anonymous said...

I comletely agree that all of us as a community have a responsibility to raise all our children to be assertive and skilled to stand up to bullies. Can i just say though without wishing to sidetrack that as someone with an interest in martial arts, i get really anxious when people start talking about using things like judo for self defence. While i am passionate about the ability of martial arts to raise self esteem and confidence as a sport, it can be dangerous to believe that these will necessarily keep anyone safe. Most martial arts are sports and many skilled martial artists have learned to their cost that real street violence bears little comparison to sports martial arts. There are good self defence systems out there but the best ones all advocate that the best self defence is to get the hell out of the situation and only fight if you absolutely have no choice, that in the face of real, nasty violence, loss of face is a far better option than loss of life. As is say, i do believe self defence and martial arts done well can be both fun and massively boost self esteem, but without the right context i think dangerous messages can be given that give people false confidence. Sorry to rant, i do just get anxious about these things

RusW said...

I take exception to the statement that "this is more often a failure of parenting than it is a characteristic of disability". That sounds clinical and like someone with a 5000 foot view of intellectual disabilities. I tire at the response by professionals that if we could just get these children and adults away from their parents we could undo the damage of bad parenting. Back down here on earth when most teachers, direct care staff, MSW's and PhD's go home at night I don't see them at the advocacy group meetings. I don't see them at the weekend presentations and conferences unless they are being paid to present. Parents of people with intellectual disabilities have done so much to promote independent living, independent thinking, speaking up and speaking out. Bad parenting is bad parenting. It is'nt unique to people with intellectual disabilities.

I decry any form of stereotypical representation of parents of children with disabilities.

BenefitScroungingScum said...

Dave, we disagree about the use of disability language but I think you might want to check this out, it's a posting on something called the Social Work Blog basically saying they think the outrage over Tropic of Thunder is a media driven waste of time.
My opinion of social workers stems from this kind of 'we know best and do as you're told' kind of mentality but even knowing this is a typical attitude for British social workers (I'll change my opinion if I ever meet a decent one) it's still deeply disturbing.
Bendy Girl
PS I know you're not very techy so forgive me if you already know this, just copy and paste the link to open it, I'm afraid I don't know how to create proper links in comments.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this, Dave.

bint alshamsa said...


Well, that link really pissed me off royally! Gah, social workers!!

Anonymous said...

Dave Hinsberger came to where I worked and he did a workshop on bullying and teasing for over 60 clients. I couldn't believe that he wouldn't let staff in, it was just him and Joe and a couple of helpers. We stood outside and waited. We heard cheers and laughter and they came out walking 25 feet tall. Dave doesn't just talk about things, he actually does them. He isn't like most management, he seenmed to enjoy teaching the clients and being with them. He's not in a tower.

Anonymous said...

I keep trying to figure out why your post today has left me with a bad taste in my mouth. I'm not sure but here's what I think. As a parent of an intellectually challenged daughter it seems that I have become a guilt magnet. Since she was born almost 29 years ago I have had to fight off a sense of blame, some from my own thoughts and some from other people who have actually asked me things like, "did you do drugs when you were pregnant" and "do you feed her enough" (she is small due to a form of muscular dystrophy)or "who in your family is retarded." I was told by a doctor to put her in an institution and go have another baby. When she graduated from high school (I home schooled her because the public school wanted to train her, not educate her) I was invited to feel inadequate because I didn't want her to go to a group home to live. She didn't want to go either after visiting one but that guilt trip was effective and I did send her to a group home so she could be independant. There she was physically, emotionally, mentally, and sexually abused. She was told by the staff that she better not tell me about it or she would be in trouble. She didn't tell me for months in spite of the fact that I drilled into her head to always tell if any one abused her. I know that all group homes aren't like that but she is now terrified of the idea of going anywhere away from home. I don't know if she will ever recover from all that.
I have fought for her rights on every front and against every agency that is supposed to serve her. I wish the world was a safer place but it is not. Trying to teach her "self defense" methods like martial arts just might get her killed if she tried to fight back instead of running away or if her attacker had a gun or knife or was just stronger or faster than she is.

I could go on and on but I won't because this is your blog not mine. I will close with this...I absolutely reject the idea that I have not been a good parent. I have done everything that I can and I will continue to do so until I am unable or dead. I have never taught my daughter to be dependant and she will absolutely correct anyone who calls her a retard. I just don't have any delusions about the state of the world and it's attitudes about the handicapped. Oh, by the way, I am one of those proffesional people who has advocated for handicapped people for 30 years. It is a much different view as a parent. I'm sorry for the rant and I won't come back here if that is what you wish. I have enjoyed reading your blog everyday for a while now. God bless you and your work...Peace

Dave Hingsburger said...

gracie1956 ... I certainly don't want you to stop commenting and disagreeing when you feel like you need to, I do not wish only to hear from those of like mind. I know my opinions sometimes strike people wrongly. I certainly did not mean to suggest that ALL parents of those with disabilities are bad parents, I've re-read my post and cannot see that anywhere. I suggest only that as subservience can be taught so can self advocacy. I absolutely see that parents have been the backbone of the community living movement and that love of child is perhaps the most powerful tool that we've had for societal change. I merely suggested that it is important for children to learn self advocacy ... that parents have a resposibility to teach it - all parents not only parents of those with disabilities. I would have chosen my words differently had I realized that those lines would overwhelm the message in the rest of the post. So, disagree with me and make me think ... I hope that occasionally I make you think too.

Anonymous said...


Thank you for pointing me to AZ Chapman. But, please, can you possibly leave off the snideness? Telling me to "look harder" does NOTHING if I DON'T KNOW WHERE AND HOW TO LOOK.

Most of us find blogs--particularly, the BEST blogs--by following recommendations from other people. This includes checking blog rolls of blogs that we already like and read regularly. So, for example, I am very familiar with several good Autistic bloggers because I happened to discover Amanda Baggs (ballastexistenz.autistics.org) about 1.5 years ago and then explored some of the blogs she links to from her blog roll. Since she reads many Autistic bloggers herself, many of those links naturally took me to Autistic bloggers, some of whom I still read regularly. I also discovered this blog through her site.

I also happen to be familiar with blogs by Deaf bloggers through deafread.com.

I haven't actively read a lot of blogs by people with mobility impairments, chronic fatigue conditions, chronic pain conditions, specific area learning disabilities (such as dyslexia), attention deficit disorder, etc. But I'm aware of where to find them, and have read some of them sporadically, usually having discovered them via the BBC Ouch board (which I first discovered when Dave started doing occasional guest spots there), or via other blogs I've read.

But the things that I currently read don't tend to link to blogs by people with intellectual disabilities. And if there is a central place where multiple such blogs are listed (such as deafread.com for Deaf bloggers, or the Autistic Hub for bloggers who are Autistic or who have Autistic relatives), then I haven't stumbled across it yet.

So if you are so knowledgeable about all the bloggers out there with intellectual disabilities then please HELP ME by giving me NAMES and URL ADDRESSES. Don't just give me the snide brush off ("look harder" ... as if I hadn't been looking ALREADY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!), because that gets me NOWHERE.

I tend to be drawn the most toward politically motivated blogs (i.e., those that talk about disability rights) or that are in some way thought provoking (such as Amanda Bagg's stuff, or Dave's stuff), or moving (Dave's stuff).


Terri said...

I thought this post was excellent--and a good reminder. My teenage daughter is pretty assertive around the house, but not really away from home and I need to give that some attention.

You walked the line of respect for people with disabilities AND their families.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry. I was wrong for unloading on you. I am touchy about this subject. I'm sure you noticed. I don't enjoy making an ass of myself but sometimes I do anyway. Damn, I hate being wrong and I hate having to make amends but i seem to let my alligator mouth overload my hummingbird ass a lot. Again, I was wrong.

Anonymous said...

Don't you think that some of the people referring to advocating for their children (or labeling their children as "voiceless" or "weak" are parents of small children?

Just a thought,

Anonymous said...

Like any 5 year old, my son is still "vulnerable, innocent, & cannot defend himself". You better believe that when he is older he will be strong & able to defend himself. Right now, I am the one who needs to protect him. I agree with those who say that many of the parents who have blogged about this might have young children.

Anjie (mom to Adam, 5)

Anonymous said...

I have posted my response here.

To claim that it is okay to talk about a group of people as if we can't defend ourselves, just because we (like everyone else on the planet) were once babies who couldn't defend themselves... well it's indefensible.

It's saying that it's okay to characterize an entire group of people by how we were as babies.

It's wrong and it hurts us. Step out of your parental perspective for a moment and look at the world around you. The world of self-advocates does not revolve around the "defenselessness" of young children.

Otherwise we'd all be defenseless, yes? Considering that everyone was once a defenseless young baby?

Women are also defenseless against sexism then, because we were all once young baby girls who couldn't defend ourselves, so parents of girls can say women can't defend ourselves, and their parental status makes their statements beyond reproach?

This doesn't make sense. Please stop doing this to us, it's basically saying we're all children, in a slightly veiled way.

Anonymous said...

Just FYI Dave, my daughter is defenseless and does not have a voice. She is 2.5 years old and at this point in her life due to seizures which damaged her brain and Down syndrome, she may never be able to fight the fight I am doing for her. So don't sweep me into your generalization and blame parents. I fight for her health every single day and work very hard to see progress. My writings about this movie are based upon MY experience. MY child.

Anonymous said...

my daughter is defenseless and does not have a voice. She is 2.5 years old and at this point in her life due to seizures which damaged her brain and Down syndrome, she may never be able to fight the fight I am doing for her.

But why argue that something is wrong because it hurts "people" or "those" or "someone" who can't defend themselves, as many commenters and bloggers against Tropic Thunder are doing? Why can't something be wrong because it harms anybody, period?

Otherwise, it sounds like people shouldn't do that harmful thing out of pity, rather than because it's wrong.

saddletanelsie said...

Yes, our argument against Tropic Thunder and hate speech in general must not be based on pity. Yes, I agree, we who want others to stop stereotyping people with intellectual disabilities must be vigilent to stop ourselves when we find ourselves guilty of the same behavior. And yes, those of us who have children with intellectual disabilities have a responsibility to do all we can to teach them to stand up for themselves.
All of that said...
I still think a couple of points are worth making.
1)Many people with intellectual disabilities (not just the young) have far greater receptive language skills than expressive language skills. For these the ability to understand that they are being insulted is there, but the ability to use words to fight back is not. In this situation, I think the word "vulnerable" is a reasonably descriptive word to use. I'm not saying that hate speech is ever okay, it is not. I'm just saying that attacking those who can not defend themselves seems to me to be particularly revolting behavior.
2)I do agree that we must be careful not to imply that people with intellectual disabilities are weak or helpless, but I think we can reasonably argue that every person (whether regarded as disabled or not) has the right to be treated with dignity and that means both providing supports and eliminating barriers as necessary, so that each of us can have our unique needs met and can make our own unique contribution to this world. I believe we must help people who are unfamiliar with disabilities to understand that we are all far more alike than we are different and that my need for glasses is no more and no less pitiable than your need for a wheel chair or a ventilator. Thanks for reading.

Anonymous said...

To me it's not just that it evokes pity, it's also that it stereotypes an entire group of people, and renders their/our advocacy on our own behalf (whether that takes the form of using words, or fighting back in more physical ways) invisible.

BTW, I have the opposite discrepancy between receptive and expressive language -- my first memories of using words are also of not having even a slight clue what meaning they had, or even that they had meaning. A person doesn't need any receptive language ability, though, to feel the hate behind 'retard' and similar words. In fact, when I can't understand language (which still happens sometimes), it amplifies my ability to feel the emotions behind the words.

That's kind of an irrelevant side-note for the most part, though.

There is really, still, no excuse for saying that 'retard' is somehow uniquely a word used against people who are unable to defend themselves.

As I said in my example with women... there are girls who can't defend themselves because they are young, there are women who can't defend themselves for a huge amount of different reasons, but if someone said of misogynist hate speech that it had to be combatted by men because women can't defend ourselves... then there would be a huge outcry by women, as there should be.

To say that people with developmental disabilities cannot defend ourselves, reinforces stereotypes that say we are all (to every last one) helpless in some way and unable to speak for ourselves.

This in turn reinforces in people's minds (and in a subtle way that they won't even notice, which is some of the worst ways it can be done) the idea that they don't have to go out and look for any advocacy by people with developmental disabilities, because it doesn't exist, after all we can't defend ourselves.

People's "defense" that they say we (as a group) can't defend ourselves because their child is a young child and can't defend themselves, reinforces the idea that we stay children our entire lives. This is a stereotype that many of us have to fight against every day in order to be allowed to make adult decisions, have sexual relationships, get married, manage our own bank accounts, live without guardians, and so forth.

"Retard" is straightforward, really.

"People with developmental disabilities can't defend themselves" is less straightforward and because of that, often has more effect on us in our everyday lives than the outright hate speech does.

I have watched one of Dave's training videos, where he shows how even people with very severe cognitive impairments -- the kind people keep commenting as 'unable to defend themselves' -- can learn to defend themselves against abuse. The stereotype ensures, however, that nobody would ever teach them to do that, because, of course, they just can't defend themselves. This in turn leaves all of us more open to abuse.

To be called a 'retard' is bad enough. To be described in ways that, by reinforcing the stereotypes, help to strip us of our ability to defend ourselves... that makes it even worse.

Please don't do it. And if anyone is offended or feels insulted by my pointing this out, please read my post No Good Guys or Bad Guys Here to see where I'm coming from with all this stuff. I'm not doing it to put people down, I'm doing it because there are things they are doing that they ought to stop doing. And that is true of every single person on the planet, me included, because all of us grow up in cultures that teach us certain biases about certain people.

I am not saying that parents can't defend their children. That is part of the job of being a parent of any child, if you're doing it right. But I am saying, it is possible to defend your children without taking an entire category of people your child happens to belong to, and labeling them as defenseless. A good rule of thumb is... imagine your child is female. Then imagine whatever you were going to say as a general statement about people with developmental disabilities... only imagine that you are saying it about women in general. If it doesn't pass that test, don't say it.

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