Op-Ed. Monterey Herald  03-25-09


by Arlen Grossman

Is President Obama cruel, clueless, or funny? When it comes to his

Special Olympics joke, it depends on how you want to look at it.

“It was like Special Olympics or something,” the President quipped, referring to his mediocre bowling score. As a credentialed special education teacher with over thirty years of experience teaching developmentally disabled (mentally retardation, cerebral palsy, autism, etc.) students, I have some thoughts about his attempt at humor on the Tonight Show recently.

A lot of people, especially family members of developmentally disabled children–even Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska, a mother of a Down Syndrome baby–criticized the president for his insensitive remark. I heard one mother describe on the radio how she had cried all night after hearing the President’s comments.

My thoughts were completely different: “Hey, that’s clever. This guy has a good sense of humor.”  Of course, I don’t see myself as insensitive, callous or bigoted, but rather honest and realistic.

I’ve been around developmentally disabled students and their families for most of my life and I have enormous love and respect for so many of them.  Most of my students are happy and loving, and their families have sacrificed incredibly to enable their children to enjoy the best possible quality of life. I am aware of and appreciate the challenges and hurdles they have to confront.

To keep the President’s “gaffe” in proper perspective, let’s keep these points in mind:

1) Developmentally disabled people were not offended by the President’s joke. Realistically, very few are capable of understanding why they should be offended. They weren’t hurt by the president’s words unless someone told them they should be. The people who were hurt were family members who, because of their natural protective instincts, are understandably sensitive about their family member’s disability.  A sense of humor, where appropriate, along with some tolerance and perspective, is the best antidote.

2) Let’s consider who is saying the “offending” remark, what was said, and the intent behind it. Only the most partisan would imply malicious intent from President Obama’s remark. He is known to be a kind-hearted, caring individual, with a record of compassion toward the disadvantaged. A similar remark from a person with a history of racist, callous and insensitive statements toward ethnic groups, gays, and other minorities (several right-wing radio personalities come immediately to mind) would require greater scrutiny and possible condemnation.

3) The truth is: Special Olympic athletes are not good at bowling. Certainly, at the top echelon of Special Olympic competition you will find excellent bowlers, far better than President Obama and most of us.  The typical Special Olympic bowlers I’ve seen do the best they can, but ultimately are less skilled than their non-disabled counterparts. Most of the time I’ve gone bowling with my students, bumper guards were needed to prevent the inevitable multitude of gutter balls. Sorry, but it’s true.

Mean-spirited and nasty remarks, in our popular culture and in everyday conversation, are not unusual, and sometimes there is a fine line between harmless humor and hurtful comments. Words do hurt and we need to be sensitive when making remarks about groups other than our own.  At the same time, we don’t want to be so hypersensitive that we are afraid to say anything lest we be verbally or legally attacked.

So before we fall all over ourselves to be the first to condemn what we feel is a insensitive remark, let’s take a moment to consider the exact words and their context, the background and type of  person saying the words, and the probable intent of that person in saying the words. If we could tolerantly and reasonably do that, relations among all of us in this multi-cultural, diverse society would be much easier and far more pleasant.

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