By Mohan Mehra, Immediate Past President, The Arc of the United States Board of Directors, and dad to Brian, a young man with Down syndrome
Last week, Barbara Walters used her platform on “The View” to defend comedian Bill Maher when he used the “R” word to describe Sarah Palin’s five year old son, Trig, who has Down syndrome.
“I don’t think he intended to be mean spirited,” said Ms. Walters. Of course he did. Hiding behind jokes often becomes a form of bullying. We see it in schools, on the playing field, and in the media when celebrities who have a large platform like Mr. Maher are looking for a laugh or attention.
To excuse Maher due to possible “ignorance of the language” is unacceptable. He is a public figure, seeks the limelight in his public and private actions, and pleading ignorance does not fit his outspoken style. Where have you been, Bill Maher and Barbara Walters?
Historically, the “R” word was a clinical term used to describe people with an intellectual disability. Today, society uses it as an insult or to degrade people with intellectual disabilities. A recent survey of youth age 8-18 done by Special Olympics and the University of Massachusetts showed that 63% said that they felt bad for the person being picked on and only 9% of the youth said that they laughed or did not care. Where have you been, Barbara Walters?
In 2010, both houses of Congress unanimously passed, and the President signed Rosa’s Law, a bill that removes the “R” word from all federal health, education and labor policy and replaces it with “intellectual disability.” Nick, Rosa’s eleven year old brother said during the hearings, “What you call my sister is how you will treat her…. It invites taunting, stigma and bullying.” Words are mere vessels for meaning. Where have you been, Barbara Walters?
In our culture, the media enjoys a special status. With over 3 million viewers of “The View”, and a large following on social media, Ms. Walters has a large platform to inform and educate, in addition to entertain. It would indeed be fitting that in the memory of her sister, Jackie, who had an intellectual disability, she calls out such use of the “R’” word as hurtful and insulting to people with intellectual disabilities and their families.