Tag Archives: Tolerance

People with Special Needs Do Not Exist as a Token for Your Entertainment

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.

Pictures, Perceptions and Judgments

Girls

Although I firmly believe that most of us don’t intend to be prejudiced in our general line of thinking, often we are anyway.  As human beings we fall into the hazardous trap of it by our very nature.  Whether it’s due to the way we were raised, the experiences we’ve had throughout our lives, or the situations we’ve been exposed to, all these things shape the way we view the world and create our sense of what it is, as well as who we are and where we fit into it.

As ashamed as I am to admit it, I can do so only now, understanding my error and knowing that I have most certainly been through trials in my life that have helped to reshape my views and propel me into a higher form of more critical thinking.  There was a time, not too long ago when I would see pictures of families of children who weren’t ‘normal’ and I would feel sorry for those people.  In my ignorance and illogical thinking, I equated the quality of such photos to that of one where someone had blinked; that it would be a nice picture, if not for that blaring blemish.  I wondered how they could smile and keep looking so ‘normal’ themselves considering their plight.  Did they look at their own photos and wish they didn’t look they way they did? I assumed so.  Why wouldn’t they want to look ‘normal’, after all?

What a terrible word ‘normal’ is, and what a horrible description it makes.  By its very nature, it’s intended to ostracize.  Yet we readily accept and embrace the idea of it.  We willingly allow ourselves to be confined to the narrow parameters set forth by it’s use.  Why?  In hopes that we can bend and contort ourselves enough to fit into it’s tiny mold?

My mistake was made in not seeing the people in the pictures.  The souls of those beautiful beings that the photographs represented.  My all-too narrow view of what ‘normal’ was, was being imposed on people who never needed my paltry judgment to begin with, and they certainly never needed my justification of their own worth or value.

Is that what people saw when they looked at our photographs?  When they looked at Miss Elliott?  Did they see a mistake or someone less-than perfect?  Did they feel sorry for us, for her?  I hoped not.  I didn’t.  And then, when I thought about if they did, I began to feel sorry for them.  Sorry that they couldn’t see the magic of a valuable and beautiful life.  It was a concept that was over their heads.

How often are we wrong in our perceptions and judgments?  Chances are, no one will ever know the extent to which they misjudge an incident because they simply keep moving about their lives.  They put these little interactions behind them and never see the forest because of all those pesky trees blocking their view.   It’s beyond me as to why we ever think we have to right to judge someone else at all.  What gives us such authority?  Who ever certified that our perceptions of anything are ever just?

We do the same thing when we come across the homeless.  So many people seem want to ignore the downtrodden and cast them out of their view of the world, looking away or acting busy when parked at a stoplight.  Even walking right past them on the street and pretending they never saw them in the first place.  What does this say about us?  Most of us would like to consider ourselves to be ‘good people’, but do our actions support our self image?  And why is it so hard for us to step out of our comfort zone to do something as noble as helping someone else?  Why is that even outside of our comfort zone in the first place?  Shouldn’t the easy thing to do be to give, not to look away?

Last Sunday we went out for lunch, which is something do regularly on Sundays after we attend church services in the morning.  As such, it’s easy to take the ability to do so for granted. As we pulled up to a stoplight there was a man holding a cardboard sign.  Dirty, disheveled, begging.  I didn’t read his sign. I have no idea what it said.  I reached into my purse and scrounged around for a granola bar I knew was in there.  I then opened my wallet and plucked out the only dollar bill inside.  Without a word I handed it to Loren, who rolled his window down and handed it to the man on the side of the road.  I knew it wasn’t much, but it was all I had on me and I hoped that it helped.

It took nothing to commit that act of kindness.  I would never miss the dollar or the granola bar.  To have not given it willingly and graciously would have spoken more about me than about the man holding the sign.  It didn’t matter what the sign said, this man felt he needed help to the point that he was willing to stand on the corner of a busy road and ask strangers for their handouts.  Who am I to judge him and his life or withhold the most minute kindness as I sat there in my warm and dry vehicle that would take me to an over priced, unnecessary lunch at a restaurant?

Later that evening, as the wind and rain increased Loren, who is a Power Lineman was called out to fix a downed power line.  When he came home he told me about a man he came across outside of the electrical utility building.  He had met this man before.  The man is homeless and roams around the city collecting rocks and stacking them in various formations.  He likes to collect things, he fancies himself an artist, he knows he is mentally handicapped.  He knows he has OCD so severely that it prevents him from being a part of society in a ‘normal’ way.  He is intelligent, and pleasant, and not ashamed of himself.

On this night, when Loren came across him, he was going through the trash in the dumpster outside of the building and strewing it all across the ground.  Loren went up to him to explain that he didn’t want to cause him any trouble, but wanted him to know that he would need to put everything back in the dumpster when he was finished or someone would eventually complain and then they would have to ask him to stay away.

He willingly complied, and thanked Loren for not being rude to him.  Loren asked him if he had a place he could get dry.  It was still pouring and the man wasn’t dressed for the weather.  He assured Loren that he did have a place he goes to keep dry.  Loren told him that that was good, took the hat off of his own head, gave it to the man, and said goodnight.

What he did was acknowledge another human being’s plight and choose to help them along.  He chose to see a person in need and not just something in society to be overlooked or judged.  It’s not about the dollar, the granola bar, or the hat. It’s about the humanity the action of giving away these items represents.  It’s about what was done with them, not what they were.  It’s about who people are, not just what you see in the picture in your mind.