President Obama made a huge mistake last week when, in a misguided attempt to make a joke during his interview with Jay Leno, he mentioned his pathetic bowling score (129) and said, “It was the like Special Olympics or something…”
Everybody has moments when they want to rewind the tape and take back something they said, but when you’re the President of the United States, there are no rewinds; every presidential word is captured for posterity, endlessly deconstructed, and used for or against whatever political position is useful.
Obama, normally exceptionally careful, should have known better. So, the obvious question is, why did he have this glaring absence of a brain-check on Special Olympics? Advocates for persons with disabilities have immediately, and correctly, seized this moment to illustrate the sad truth: discrimination against people with disabilities remains a prevalent American tendency, one of the last great prejudices that society tolerates in speech, jokes, and other forms of bias.
To combat this mentality, Special Olympics has launched a program called “Spread the Word to End the Word — the “R” Word” — the “R” word being that dreadful slur, “retard.” As ugly as that word is, we still hear it used in too many places by people who would never use certain other taboo words. Beyond the word, we still find people who think it’s socially acceptable to make fun of those who have various disabilities. The campaign aims to raise awareness of this insidious form of discrimination.
Seniors Liz Zamorski and Jamie LePak have already written to me about President Obama’s gaffe and their plans to lead our campuswide response for the Special Olympics Campaign to Spread the Word. Many thanks to Liz and Jamie for exerting great leadership already on this important topic. Below is the text of a message that Liz sent last night about this campaign, and I look forward to sharing more of the program with you as plans unfold.
From Liz and Jamie:
“… we’re sure you have read about the aftermath of President Obama’s appearance on the Late Night Show with Jay Leno on Thursday, March 19. During his interview, he made an unscripted comment about his bowling skills, likening them to those of a Special Olympics athlete. As Special Olympics volunteers and former coaches, we were both appalled by President Obama’s comments.
“Discrimination in any form should not be accepted in the United States of America. Yet, it is especially egregious when the discrimination is targeted towards individuals with disabilities who participate in an organization that is based on building their confidence and heralding their achievements. It is also worth noting that these comments were made by a President who ran his campaign platform on the ideals of change and inclusion for all Americans. Did we not read the fine print? Did he really mean to imply inclusion for all Americans, except for those with emotional, developmental, or physical disabilities?
“His recanting of his statement only hours after his appearance also left us speechless: he called the CEO of Special Olympics to apologize and invite Special Olympics athletes to the White House to bowl and “shoot hoops.” As caregivers and siblings to individuals who have developmental and emotional disabilities, we cannot see how an invitation to the home of a person who publicly discriminated against Special Olympics athletes is any retribution.
“During its 41 year history, the Special Olympics has touched the lives of countless athletes in over 200 countries. Their message of “dignity, equality, and opportunity for ALL people” mirrors the mission of Trinity. We implore not only President Obama, but also the entire Trinity community, to become fierce advocates of the Special Olympics “Spread the Word to End the Word” campaign. The acceptance of discrimination and hate speech against persons with disabilities must be ended.
“The “Spread the Word to End the Word” campaign seeks to end the use of the “r-word” and rightfully consider it as hate speech. We are both committed to this cause and seek to meet with you and the Athletics Department to discuss how Trinity University can become involved in this much-needed fight for global diversity and inclusion of all people. http://www.specialolympics.org/03-31-09_Spread_the_Word.aspx”