Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Well, Is She?

Readers ... your opinion is sought. I recieved the following letter in an email and I wrote back and asked permission to share it, as written, here on the blog. I love the fact that the blog is sometimes a forum for debate and discussion. I, like Kerri, and interested in what you have to say ... I'll weigh in later in the day.
Hi Dave,

I’ve been following your blog for a few years now and have admired your work ever since I saw your keynote address at the Canadian Down Syndrome Society conference in Winnipeg about 11 years ago (was it that long ago? Wow.)

I’ve enjoyed your occasional posts about dilemmas where opinions were solicited  - now I have one for you. I can’t even decide what I think about the situation and would love to know what other think. I’ll try to write about the experience objectively, although I’m not sure I can be completely unbiased. Feel free to use this on your blog if you like (or not, it's your blog :)), and edit as needed.

I went to our regional high school Special Olympics track and field meet yesterday. As with past years the athletes sorted themselves in to school groupings – about 14 schools I think - and lined up behind the stadium to march in accompanied by the police pipe band, school banners held high. I would have to guess there were 300 athletes cheering, waiving flags and blowing horns. Walking, wheeling, hopping, running, limping, shuffling. Athletes of every shape, size and ability but what held them in common was their enthusiasm and excitement. 

A contingent from one high school boasted a range of wheelchairs from the sport model to the fully equipped motorized chair with add-ons for medical needs. Within this group I noticed a core of people, a couple of athletes and a handful of what I assumed to be peer coaches carrying hand-painted signs on bristol board. “Ra-ra Boom!” “Go [school name] Go!” Some others I don’t recall. And then, held aloft by an older teenage boy in a wheelchair, a big sign with large, brightly painted lettering, “Hot Girls Check in Here”.

I don’t know the boy, I don’t know the school or it’s culture, or any inside jokes that may have been the reason for the sign. Maybe the boy is popular and a favourite with the girls. Maybe he is not.

Here’s what I do know: If a high school student held up a sign with those words in any other place it would be inappropriate. Unacceptable. Offensive. Girls are not to be judged on their “hotness” and be told where they should or should not go. People with disabilities should not lobby for equal rights and privileges in life but expect different rules of acceptable behaviour – the sign would not be acceptable at any high school event. 

Oh, but it was just a joke. Didn’t mean anything by it. I wasn’t talking about you. Lighten up. The classic rebuttal for every complaint about name calling, bullying, taunting, unfairness, and discrimination. Which automatically makes the complainant look like, well, a complainer. But I’m drawing a line in the sand  - you’ve taught me well, Dave, that words matter. And words hurt.  Let’s face it, if we measure by society’s yardstick of “hotness”, there wouldn’t be too many girls at a Special Olympics track meet who would qualify to join the line under that sign (please note the sarcasm here).

Worse still was the thought that whoever created the sign was mocking both the boy and the gathering of athletes? Like I said, I don’t know the individuals or the school. Where were the teachers in all of this? I can’t say. Could you?

Am I over reacting?



Anonymous said...

Kerri - I would have been upset had I seen the sign. For one - it has nothing to do with athletics. Sounds like the other signs did - support for schools, etc. Secondly - if it is a "joke" it's a mean joke. Not funny at all. Thirdly I agree that other schools not associated with the "special" would most likely not have tolerated the signage. It may have "snuck" in - like a streaker at an event - but I doubt it would have "passed". I think that respect should be taught, upheld and modeled at all times. Respect for others and respect for self. This sign fails on both accounts.

Mary said...

I'm confused by the last paragraph, about "whoever created the sign" and the idea that the boy carrying it might have been being mocked. One hopes that participating in a group event specifically organised for disabled people, he had agency over creating his placard even if he did it with an aide. Even if not, it's reasonable to believe that in that setting, surrounded by fellow students/athletes and staff, he had the wherewithal to communicate that he did or did not wish to carry it.

I agree that disabled people should be held to the same standards as their non-disabled peers. But that's what being a teenager is about - trying something and then finding out what the consequences are. I don't think teenage boys in wheelchairs are expected to be immune from "tasteless sense of humour" or "being a prat" and go directly to a position of sensitivity to the feelings of others.

If an aide *did* help him make the sign then I'm quite glad they let him be a sexist idiot because making the mistake is the first part of learning. But the second part is important - the bit where he gets taken aside and *told* he was being unacceptably disrespectful, combined with whatever disciplinary measures the school feels is appropriate, such as detention/loss of privileges/write an essay on respect for others/etc.

Anonymous said...

I’m with Mary. Go speak with the guy and tell him you find it offensive. I think good on him for claiming ground for expressing sexuality when there is so little, maybe no, space for him to do so. A guy attending our training course for service users on evaluating services commented, when we were looking at reading emotions and adapting your interview accordingly, that the man in the picture was hot and had nice lips, rather than he looked upset (target answer). On the one hand, it’s one of those ‘inappropriate responses’. On the other hand, I have to question where else this guy gets to express his sexuality other than when he goes out on the scene and is affectionately/patronisingly recognised and welcomed as the guy with learning disabilities- but not as a potential date.
Squeezing out the space for the placard would be wrong, in my opinion. Even tho it’s wrong to have placards like that.
I’m with Mary, teenage boys in wheelchairs are not immune from teenage behaviour and on top of this, usually find restricted space for self expression.
I think it needs working through with dialogue.

Anonymous said...

Dear Kerri - trust your gut feeling!! This was tasteless and may have been a set-up. Can you imagine any other event (with any group of people) during which this would be acceptable?

Adelene said...

No, Kerri's not over-reacting.

Why is this even a question? o.O

Anonymous said...

I think that a lot of assumptions are being made here, that are simply not known. The event is being given a context that nobody could possibly know.

Let’s look at what happened without the assumptions. I teenage boy expresses his interest in hot girls. This is just as (un)acceptable in the context of a disabled track team as it is with any other track team.

Of course, from an adult, enlightened position, it is easy to say that girls shouldn’t be judged by their hotness. However, we are dealing with a teenage boy. I have to admit, that at that age, I judged girls by their hotness to a much greater extent than I do now!

If any further information comes out about the circumstances, then we may have a different situation, but without that, this is a case of a teenage boy doing what teenage boys do.

Jan Goldfield said...

Adelene is right.
This letter to you, Dave and your including it in your blog just shows us that men are still men ( I wanted to say pigs, but pigs are very intelligent,) and need so much more education. Often I wonder if it's even worth trying.

Liz said...

Oh what a minefiled! My daughter has Down's Syndrome and goes to a mainstream school (in the UK) She regularly comes home talking about which boys are hot - and which not - and I try to temper teenage lust and media hype with a feminist perspective.

I love it when the issue of sex and relationship comes to the foreground in a learning disability context. Absolutely, I agree that the sign is tasteless, would not be tolerated elsewhere, needs discussion, removal etc. However, we must recognise that this kind of event is a rare and precious opportunity to meet up with potential partners. How can we maximise the opportunities of such an event? What do we need to do to support the young people to develop respectful relationships? How can we back off far enough for young people to make the same silly mistakes, and learn from them, as other young people?

Most importantly, what do we need to do to get equalities issues into the school curriculum for young disabled people? This has got to be one of the biggest gifts of all.

Dave Hingsburger said...

Jan are you suggesting that I should not have posted this letter, as requested? I'm not clear what you are saying there.

Kelly said...

Actually I'd like to respectfully disagree with many of the commenters. I've seen many signs like that at ordinary high school events, including science fairs, athletics events, and drama competitions. Someone usually says something after awhile, but I don't think it is *particularly* inappropriate for a Special Olympics event. I think it's great if the kid's support person helped him make some kind of tasteless sexist sign, because it's the sort of thing teenage boys do all the time. Later someone (hopefully another teenager) should talk to him and say "that's not cool, it makes us feel like we're only interesting because of our looks," but teenagers of all genders are working this stuff out as they go. I run a youth group and this stuff is SO normal and such a normal part of learning how to deal with impulses and hormones...

Jan Goldfield said...

No, Dave, I'm glad you posted her letter. It gives us an opportunity to see just how far we have NOT come in teaching men what is proper and what is not.
I think it's just too bad the question still has to be asked by anyone for any reason, in any context.

John R. said...

Kerri. You are not overreacting. This is a sexist sign and not appropriate in such an event....or any public type of event, I suppose. Hey, love free speech and all that but when there are allowances for degradation it becomes a fast and slippery slope into disrespect. The cycle of violence comes from sentiments like stated in that sign. Inside jokes or not, the teachers and advisors to this group have failed.

Anonymous said...

It sounds like a prank to me, and one that took some guts to carry out. And in fact, I think it's kind of funny. It probably took some scheming and creativity to get it made and into the line without getting caught. So while the content is out of place, isn't that the point? It wouldnt have had the same effect otherwise. So I'm impressed. And yes, of course he should get in trouble.

Unknown said...

Well frankly the sign was in bad taste and should not be allowed at a school event. The reason for it being there I will not assume, a teenage boy often behaves like a "teenage boy" and if someone set him up, shame on them. However, my fear is that the sign was allowed in because someone was condescending and thought it was "cute" that a teenager with a disability would be concerned about "hot girls". Someone needs to be an adult, find out who initiated the sign and give that a person a talking to about respect.

Unknown said...

I am sure there are many young men out there that would love to hold a sign like that up but it is just plain inappropriate. There is a time and place for everything, learning experiences like that can take place at a party or a bar not school athletic meets. Offering this student the freedom to do this is sending the message that students with disabilities are "cute" and "harmless" and should have different expectations or social rules, NOT ACCEPTABLE!

Unknown said...

The old saying there is a time and place for everything. I am sure many young men would hold this sign if they thought it was ok....this is the nature of young men, that's not what the question is here. A party or a bar would be the time and/or place to learn this lesson, not a school activity. Offering this young man the freedom to do this at this venue sends the message that students with disabilities have a different set of social rules and expectations, it makes them appear "cute". This is not acceptable by any student at an athletic/ school event, bottom line!

Ettina said...

"I'm confused by the last paragraph, about "whoever created the sign" and the idea that the boy carrying it might have been being mocked. One hopes that participating in a group event specifically organised for disabled people, he had agency over creating his placard even if he did it with an aide. Even if not, it's reasonable to believe that in that setting, surrounded by fellow students/athletes and staff, he had the wherewithal to communicate that he did or did not wish to carry it."

It depends on his cognitive level. It's entirely possible his language skills could have been too poor for him to understand what was being written on the sign or express an opinion on it. I've known some kids who I could probably convince to hold up a sign without them having the capacity to understand the message on it even if I read it aloud to them.

Which would make the situation extremely inappropriate. It's a lot more iffy if he wrote it himself, or dictated or approved it, but if he did not have input on it then that's really bad.

Anonymous said...

Hmmmmm... I would like to know more. Did he happen to have a cooler with refreshements with him?

Perhaps he was in charge of ensuring "HOT" female participants were hydrated during the day's events.

Perhaps he was enticed into Special Olympics by the prospect of meeting a special someone...

Perhaps he is looking for female companionship and is uncertain as to how to "appropriately" get that message across to his female peers. (Looking for love in all the wrong places)

Perhaps he is a teen, like millions of others teens out there (myself included, a couple of decades back), who test the social boundaries...

Regardless, if you found his message inappropriate, you should have mentioned something to him. When in doubt ask...share your feelings about his message with him. :)

Anonymous said...

That was absolutely not OK. I do not accept any group of people being offensive or inappropriate because of their diagnosis or preference or for any reason. One of the things we struggle with as we support adults with intellectual disabilities is the presumption that because they have a disability an inappropriate action is OK. The phrase we have adopted for such instances is "skating on your disability". If we would not accept the "joke" coming from anyone else, why would we accept it from a person with a disability?

wheeliecrone said...

Kerri -
You are not overreacting - you are calling discrimination as you see it.
Sexist jokes are sexist jokes, whether they are made by a person with or without a disability.
Not funny.

Rachel in Idaho said...

The sign was in very bad taste. No argument there. But here is a very young man being, well, a very young man with a ton of hormones - he needs to learn about appropriate boundaries and behavior, but my guess is that he thought the sign would be funny. I knew a lot of guys years ago who would think it was. Like, my whole high school full of them. Given that, the sign should have been confiscated as soon as somebody with the authority noticed it. Not cool, man, not cool.

Where his disability comes into this is that at least he feels able to put himself and his sexuality out there, even if he needs to learn different methods for doing so!

Purpletta said...

Interesting issue and comments here... I have to agree with Mary and Kelly that this is not entirely surprising in this age group, I'm particular at a sporting event. At the same time I am not sure about the notation that it was done at a school event, as I don't believe Special Olympics is a school-based group, although certainly the group may use a school for practices and competitions. Sexist comments from a teenage boy at a sports event... well, that's all pretty typical.

Jan, I am not exactly sure that I am clear on your point but regarding Dave I have to say there aren't many more respectful people out there, and I don't think posting the letter in the blog for comment shows a lack of awareness of anything, rather a lot of insight into this as a scenario that could lead to really important conversation. Being the 20th commenter today, and seeing that each of us has had a different perspective, I'd suggest that sharing this was very worthwhile. As far as the teenager, well he's a kid, maybe an older kid, but a kid nonetheless & kids are not pigs. Kids are growing and developing young people. Of course this kid needs to be told his actions are not okay. I am by all counts a feminist. I think this teen was out of line. But wow how thrilling it is that we are in a place as a society that a young man with a disability has been given messages by our society that allow him to make the same (inappropriate) comments as anyone else his age... I am just a couple of decades older but the messages society gave to kids with disabilities relative to sexuality when I was in high school were far different... We have come far...
What surprised me a bit is how many commenters here thought it was likely that the gentleman didn't understand what his sign said, that someone else had done the sign for him, that it was somehow meant in jest or insult toward the person carrying the sign...anything is possible of course but it seems to me that this person regardless of his disability having found the spunk to do the same (inappropriate) thing as his 'typical' peers is much of the point...intellectual disability doesn't preclude a teen from being a teen, establishing his personhood...
All that said I hope that Just Heidi is right, that there was a play on words somehow :-)

Anonymous said...

Yes the sign was inappropriate, but he is a teenager. It's not a bad thing that he has a certain normal amount of inappropriateness. It's good that he thinks the girls who might be there are "hot", and that he has enough self worth that thinks that he is worth meeting one.

He just needs a little help expressing it better.

Kristine said...

I'm so glad this got posted. I think it raises great questions.

If the sign is inappropriate at other student gatherings, and I'd argue that it is, then it's inappropriate for Special Olympics too. While many would let the event go unnoticed, when you stop and think about it, it seems obvious.

The more interesting issue, to me, is how society treats sexuality and relationships in regards to disability. I feel like I've seen it treated in a very condescending manner so many times. It's "cute," "funny," and maybe even "inspirational" when a disabled teen makes flirty or sexual comments. I don't know the boy in the parade, but if he's like many that I know, he gets girls to shamelessly flirt with him all the time. He gets body parts shoved in his face, and kisses on the cheek, and he loves every minute of it. People like to laugh about how "he's such a ladies' man." But at the end of the day, everyone goes back to their "real" relationships, and he goes home alone. He's been romantically and/or sexually teased all over the place, but now he has nothing to do with all those feelings. Nowhere "real" to direct them. Everyone else feels really good about themselves, though, for giving some joy to the guy in a wheelchair.

I'm not actually making all these assumptions about the boy in the parade. I'm just using it as a jumping-off point to discuss something I've noticed, which is one of the possibilities in Kerri's story. I'm also not saying that people with disabilities can't have authentic, fulfilling relationships; I know many who do. Like I said, it's just something I see, and it always makes me feel dirty.

Joyfulgirl said...

I really despair of the amount of sexism and misogyny that is socially acceptable and explained away/excused away as 'fun'.