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President Obama and the Special Olympics

You may have heard that, on the Jay Leno Show, President Barack Obama made a joke about the Special Olympics. 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 learn a lesson from what happened. 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 responding to the situation and noting the immense value 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.”

(excerpt from) The Christian Science Monitor
Special Olympics

In a lighthearted conversation, President Obama told Jay Leno that he recently bowled a 129 at the White House bowling alley.

“Very good,” Leno said sarcastically.

“It was like Special Olympics or something,” Obama replied.

Realizing the potential magnitude of the mistake, the White House addressed the president’s remark to reporters aboard Air Force One.

“The President made an offhand remark making fun of his own bowling that was in no way intended to disparage the Special Olympics,” Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton told reporters. “He thinks that the Special Olympics are a wonderful program that gives an opportunity to shine to people with disabilities from around the world.”

4 Responses

  1. Ian: I absolutely agree that this is an opportunity to move forward a discussion of our hurtful use of language and working with those with disabilities.

    I take issue with the descriptions of Obama, though. He may be smart, but not enlightened. Enlightened people would not have made that joke in the first place. Enlightened people do not kill people in Afghanistan and Iraq. Enlightened people do not claim to hear all sides while cutting the discussion down to only those answers they already want like Obama has done in cutting Single Payer out of the Healthcare debate.

    And though the media has phrased it as an apology, it does not seem like an apology to me. Though the statement made is helpful in moving toward a positive conversation about those with disabilities, it is not an apology. The statement was from the deputy press secretary, not Obama. The statement did not acknowledge that Obama did anything wrong.

  2. I agree strongly with Ian. I am offended by the ‘joke,’ appalled by it. There is no excuse for it and I am not in any mood for a rush to ‘move on’ and spare Barack Obama. He’s the president of the United States, quit making excuses for him.
    I see no indication of his depth or enlightenment and I think before you (Kimberly Wilder) or anyone else make the decision that we all just ‘move on,’ you grasp that it’s not just about what you want.
    My brother’s disabled. I spoke to him about this. Who did you speak to and who gave you the right to speak for the disabled community?
    I wish Ian would post more and this is why a lot of us don’t come to the site, non-stop apologies and excuses for Barack Obama.
    Here he’s done something tasteless and offensive and Kimberly’s rushed in with a post that says, “Don’t make this about Barack.”
    Who are you to say that? You’re not disabled. You’re not an organization for the disabled.
    Why don’t you stop trying to rescue him?
    If you did that, it would be a lot easier to read On The Wilder Side.
    He should be held to the same standards George W. Bush was.
    Democrats and Republicans game the system. And you want to make excuses for him? If they didn’t game the system, Cynthia would be president now and you better believe she wouldn’t have said anything so insulting.
    They game the system and they get no sympathy from me.

    • Glad you agree with my husband.

      Glad that there are two people writing at this blog, so you have more of a chance to find someone you agree with.

      I don’t think it makes sense for you to jump to the conclusion that I am not disabled. Also, I did not consult with other disabled people. But, I thought very much about the disabled people I love, and the families of disabled people who I work with and have conversations like this with. I did not intend to give Obama dispensation. And, discussing the issue probably makes it worse for him than ignoring it.

      I disagree with the way both yourself and Ian took my comment about “enlightened.” It was merely a placeholder word, honoring the fact that Obama and other politicians should be in a certain state of education and awareness about life. I did not mean it as a compliment to him in anyway. But, I see that two people took it that way.

      I concern myself much less with Obama than both you and Ian do. I was not saying that we should “move on” by not chastising Obama. My goal was that we realize that Obama is just one person, and not worth all our energy. The energy and compassion we have to respect disabled people and make sure correct language is used should be aimed at fixing ourselves, the people around us, and the whole culture in addition to Obama.

      Thanks for your comments. They are much appreciated. (Probably even more by Ian.)


  3. He has hurt many families in America. He needs to say he is sorry in the public, not to an organization.

    In addition, someone who claims to have experienced prejudice and stereotypes throughout life, and has written about them in great detail, should be more sensitive and refined from life’s lessons.

    Furthermore, Obama claimed he was going to have the world think ‘highly’ of America again. Will this joke help?

    For someone who spoke of equality as a creed. Does this joke match that philosophy?

    For someone that said he would stand for all people. Does this stand up for those that participate in the special Olympics?

    The fact is Obama claimed a higher standard. To much is given, much is required.

    Obama has just showed us that ‘yes we can’ destroy what a campaign stands for with a single joke.

    During the campaign for the White House in 2008, the media criticized Palin for being ‘common,’ ‘not-polished,’ ‘not-compassionate’ and ‘not presidential.’ However, compare Sarah Palins attitude in this video created three weeks ago for the Special Olympics in Boise, Idaho.

    You decide the more ‘presidential’ among them. Watch: http://tinyurl.com/ccz6nj

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