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The Arc’s Letter to Gary Owen on His Comments Offensive to People With Disabilities

May 12, 2016

Dear Mr. Owen,

I am writing in regard to your Showtime Special “Agree with Myself” and its flagrant mockery of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). As the nation’s largest organization serving and advocating with and for people with IDD, with a network of more than 650 chapters across the country, we’ve received many complaints about the content of this program from people who are truly outraged. Having watched the offensive clip myself, I felt compelled to contact you to voice our concerns.

The segment I am referring to includes you using the word ”retarded” to describe your cousin with intellectual disabilities. People with IDD have made clear for decades that they consider the ”r-word” to be demeaning and don’t accept it being used to describe them. They view it as analogous to the use of the ”n-word” to describe a person who is black. For them it is a slap in the face that reminds them of all the verbal and physical abuse and discrimination they have experienced on a daily basis. What they want is respect.

In addition to the use of this slur, the content of your act, your antics and the tone you took are equally unacceptable. Your sketch about your cousin, her lover and her friends is demoralizing and attacks individuals with IDD on multiple levels, from their speech to their sexuality. You dehumanize them for laughs, not taking into account the dark history individuals with disabilities have faced in our nation. Individuals with disabilities have suffered through decades of discrimination and humiliation including forced sterilization, abuse, and institutionalization.

The fact of the matter is that your special contains callous verbal violence against a minority group. I hope you can see that this goes beyond an issue of an artist’s freedom of speech – this is hate speech. The Arc, Special Olympics, dozens of other disability organizations, and thousands of advocates across the country are united in our outrage that you and Showtime have failed to pull this program from On Demand or edit out the offensive segment. We hope you have dropped it from your live performances.

IVlr. Owen, perhaps you don’t understand that 85 percent of people with IDD are not employed, when they could be working but no one will hire them. Or maybe you are unaware that people with disabilities are three times more likely to be the victim of violent crimes and four times more likely to be victims of sexual violence. Fifty-two percent of students with IDD leave high school without a regular diploma which greatly limits their prospects for employment and post-secondary education. Public attitudes and lack of understanding of people with IDD, and lack of appreciation for their humanity, is perhaps the single biggest reason for the challenges people with IDD face in being fully included, participating and being treated fairly in their communities.

You could have been part of the solution, as has your fellow comedian Amy Schumer, but instead you contribute to the problem. Recently, 50 Cent knew when to apologize after stepping over the line, why not you?

I welcome the opportunity to discuss this matter with you and to introduce you to people with IDD who are quite different from the caricature you provided. As you tour the country in the coming months, we would be happy to connect you with local chapters of The Arc that will arrange for you to
meet people with IDD who are leading full lives in and are contributing to their communities.

Peter V. Berns
CEO, The Arc