I recently discovered an “article” (I say article while sarcastically surrounding the word in air quotes as I speak) online unbelievably titled “The Top 20 Special Needs Movie Character Ever”. One glimpse at the opening line, which was: “This list isn’t meant to offend” in an article consisting entirely of just five simple sentences, and you could easily see that this beginning statement was either a thinly veiled disclaimer or an attempt at a preemptive apology for the disgraceful content that was to follow.
This article serves to perpetuate the culturally prevalent idea in our society that applying the label of ‘special needs’ to individuals, whether they are people whom actually exist or those that have been fictitiously created, makes them novel or trivial and diminishes their contributions to our society’s idea of what makes a life important and valuable.
To set the record straight, let’s start by explaining what the term ‘special needs’ really means. Such a person is one whom has special educational requirements due to learning difficulties, emotional or behavioral issues, and/or physical disabilities. This could be a child in need of an aide in the classroom to perform certain tasks, a modified exercise in Physical Education for someone with a physical disability, even altering the environment to be understanding and supportive to the sensitivities of someone with sensory issues, or a myriad of other implementations. It boils down to making sure that an individual has what they need to succeed in their pursuit of education, and subsequently, in society.
In order to avoid funneling any more unnecessary traffic to this webpage, I will refrain from posting the actual link to the article here. I will however, post their list for the purposes of this discussion, which is as follows:
1. Rosie O’Donnel in Riding the Bus with my Sister
2. Leonardo DiCaprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?
3. Sloth from Goonies
4. Billy Bob Thornton in Slingblade
5. Hanson from Scary Move 2
6. Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump
7. Kristen Stewart in The Cake Eaters
8. Jon Heder in Napoleon Dynamite
9. Warren from There’s Something About Mary
10. Cuba Gooding Jr. in Radio
11. Dustin Hoffman in Rainman
12. Booger from Revenge of the Nerds
13. Molly Shannon in Superstar
14. Sean Penn in I Am Sam
15. Hank from Drop Dead Gorgeous
16. Adam Sandler in Billy Madison
17. John Malkovich in Of Mice and Men
18. Elizabeth Shue in Molly
19. Juliette Lewis in The Other Sister
20. Robin Williams in Jack
The first and most obvious issue I take with this list is the fact that many of these examples are not even ‘special needs’ individuals, rather they are merely eccentric characters; goofballs, underachievers, and those who are just plain socially awkward. By lumping all of these characters in this article together as ‘special needs’, the writer has clearly reduced the idea of being a special needs person to that of a bumbling, idiotic, low level of intelligence, barely functioning ‘retard’, a term so often used in our culture, offensively to describe and make-fun of individuals such as those on this list. The idea that a list like this is acceptable as a form of entertainment to be mindlessly glossed over is atrocious.
The second issue I take with this is the fact that they are listed as the “top” characters. The top of what? In what category? For what reason? Are they the funniest, the stupidest, most ‘retarded’? What is the gauge by which these characters have been measured? What exactly are we to ascertain from this list? The writer, himself never explains his purpose in his five sentences. He almost leaves us to decipher the meaning of it for ourselves. If it weren’t for the tags listed at the end of the article, one being: “movies about retarded people“, you might have excused it away as nothing more than a compilation. This information, however, tells us the sad truth behind his unfortunate intentions.
This article is offensive. On behalf of the over one-billion people living with various forms of disabilities across the world, some cognitive, some emotional, some physical, and so forth, I take offense. I take offense for those who cannot speak up for themselves and act out against any of the deplorable stereotypes that continue to exist in our culture that tell these people they are not ‘normal’, that they are in fact, trivial, novel and something to be made examples of and discriminated against as a form of amusement for the rest of society.
A person who watches these movies, and reads (or makes) lists like these with the intent to laugh at the individuals who actually do have special needs, is someone lacking the most basic of human components; those of empathy and compassion toward the his fellow human beings. I pity these people, for they are truly missing out on a large portion of the purpose of life, and in reality, they, themselves are the ones with nothing meaningful to contribute to the human condition. Surely such a shallow existence must be novel and trivial in and of itself.