This week I read about a situation that I can’t stop thinking about. LulaRoe, an American multilevel marketing clothing company, found itself in the centre of a storm with one of it’s consultants. The consultant did a Facebook Live broadcast to sell his merchandise and during the broadcast mocked intellectually disabled people by pretending that he himself had ‘special needs’. He went on later that day to do a further broadcast to apologise. Sat beside him on the sofa was his wife’s sister, who has Down Syndrome. To me this was the equivalent of saying, I know it was wrong and there is no excuse BUT my sister in law has Down Syndrome and I didn’t mean it ‘that way’. LulaRoe did not terminate his contract, even when the American National Down Syndrome Society, (NDSS), who they have supported directly, cut ties with them.
LulaRoe has said, ”After speaking with the Retailer at great length, we believe his apology is sincere and accepted his assurance that this type of behavior would never happen again. Unfortunately, NDSS leadership is unwilling to accept the Retailer’s apology and has informed us that unless we terminate his contract with LuLaRoe, the organization will no longer associate with us,” the co-founders said in a statement.
Would this have played out the same way if the consultant had been racist? I think not. If it was racism or sexism the company would have immediately terminated his contract. Somehow his decidedly insincere apology placated the company. If he had been mocking a black person then I very much doubt the attitude would have been, ’It’s ok because he apologised and his sister in law is black’.
The takeaway from this incident is that mocking disability isn’t right but that it is acceptable, understandable, forgivable even.
It should make us all feel as uncomfortable, outraged and offended as racism.
Disability is the last bastion of acceptable discrimination and mocking. Why is it seen as less offensive to mock someone for their disability than it is to mock them for their skin colour, gender or religion? Referring to yourself as ‘a bit spesh’, ‘special needs’, or ‘special’, when you are laughing off an act of stupidity to mean that you are less intelligent or less able simply means you equate disabled people with being less. Less than you. That you are better than them. You aren’t.
Don’t get me started on the terms ‘spaz’ or ‘retard’, these words are absolutely and unequivocally unacceptable. People will say, ‘ I didn’t know what it meant’, if you don’t know what a word means then don’t say it. If you do know what they mean then you know that they are offensive, mocking terms that are used to demean and hurt disabled people. Can you imagine saying those words to a person who has spasticity or a learning disability? Can you imagine saying these words to my daughter? If they are words in your vocabulary then you need to remove them NOW. They are the equivalent to racist terms which are so widely unacceptable that I wouldn’t even bring myself to type them here.
Disabled people can no more help their disability than you can help the colour of your skin. Becoming disabled or caring for someone who is disabled can happen to any of us in a heartbeat. Your skin colour can’t change during your lifetime but you can become disabled in an instant. Does that mean you would instantly be less than everyone else. That you would be ok with being made fun of? That it was ‘just a joke’? Even if the perpetrator didn’t mean it ‘that way’? No you wouldn’t be ok with it and it there is no other way to mean it apart from ‘that way’. Can you even imagine those justifications being accepted if we were discussing racist jokes? Absolutely not. It wouldn’t be funny and it wouldn’t be tolerated.
Over recent decades society has changed its attitude towards disabled people in so many positive ways but we still have so far to go. It is still seen as forgivable to mock those with disabilities. Disabled people are not less than they are equal to and as a society we need to demand that they be treated as such.