After two decades of continued devotion, the Special Olympics is faced with an industry that's determined to test every limit...this time, they've gone too far.
I joined hundreds of protestors at the recent premiere of the film Tropic Thunder to denounce its unfortunate and humiliating portrayal of people with intellectual disabilities. Members of our coalition -- self advocates and family members of people with intellectual disabilities -- have seen the movie pre-release and have reported shock, disgust and in some cases of leaving movie theatres in tears. Their reactions have resonated with many of us who take their struggle and voice with the utmost seriousness. By all accounts, it is an unchecked assault on the humanity of people with intellectual disabilities -- an affront to dignity, hope and respect.
While I am disappointed we were not consulted in the same manner as other minority groups depicted in the film -- there are seventeen mentions of the "R-word" and only one mention of the "N-word" -- I am grateful to DreamWorks CEO, Stacey Snider, for listening to the coalition and helping to eliminate some of the film's most offensive marketing elements.
The issue goes beyond mere fiction. People with intellectual disabilities are routinely abused, neglected, insulted, institutionalized and even killed. Their parents are told to give up and that their children are worthless. Schools turn them away. Doctors refuse to treat them. Employers won't hire them. None of this is funny.
The degrading use of the word "retard" along with the broader humiliation of people with intellectual disabilities in the film goes too far. When the R-word is casually used, and when bumbling, clueless caricatures designed to mimic the behavior of people with intellectual disabilities are portrayed on screen, they have an unmistakable outcome: they mock people with intellectual disabilities. They perpetuate the worst stereotypes. They further exclude and isolate. They are downright mean-spirited.
Mockery in any form, purpose or directed at anyone, especially those least able to defend themselves, is neither funny nor acceptable. We must work together to bring it to a stop. As chairman of the Special Olympics, I am a champion for change and encourage each and every one of us to reflect on ways we can all be respectful to those who so deserve it.
People with intellectual disabilities are great athletes, productive employees, positive friends, courageous role models. Let's open our schools, doctors' offices, businesses, communities, and most importantly our hearts to the giftedness of every human being. No more exceptions. No more exclusion.
Some may think we ought to lighten up and not get worked up over this movie; after all, it's just a film. I don't believe people with intellectual disabilities are off limits as characters in film comedies. In fact, I worked with the Farrelly brothers on a film on this topic and I know edgy comedy. There is a fine line with using minority characters as central elements to a storyline without being gratuitously insulting.
My issue here is that films become part of pop culture and character lines are repeated in other settings, time and time again. It's clear to me that lines from this particular film will provide hurtful ammunition outside of the movie theatre. While I realize that the film's creators call this a parody and they never intended to hurt anyone, it doesn't mean they won't.
We've come so far over the years; we've branded an institution, empowered countless families and brought hope to a seemingly "hopeless" situation. Let's right one more wrong. Ban the R-word. Ban the movie. Take a stand. Make a difference.
Tim Shriver is the Chairman and CEO of the Special Olympics.
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