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How We Can Truly Fight Disability Bias in Entertainment

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Editor’s note: On June 7, 2016, Gary Owen agreed to remove the segment in his Showtime special in which he depicts people with intellectual disabilities. Effective immediately, the special will still be available On Demand but will not include this portion. More details here.

During the summer of 2006, Oakland, California was plagued by a rash of murders. I was home from college that year and got invited to participate in a “stop the violence” campaign. The campaign was headed by an organization called the Ella Baker Center that believes all people have a right to justice and respect. The lead organizer was excited because she got a rap star named Mr. Fab to lend his support. Fab was getting a lot of airplay at the time with a song about Vann’s brand shoes. Personally, I thought the song sounded like someone rapping a book report on the subject, but he wanted to assist the campaign and who was I to judge.

A few weeks after the campaign started, I heard more of Mr. Fab’s rapping. The artist seemed to use the phrase “yellow bus” in every song he rapped. He even had a local radio show called “The Yellow Bus Hour.” Mr. Fab wasn’t talking about the yellow buses kids in the country or on sports teams ride. No, he was talking about the short bus that is typically used by special-ed students. “You know that I’m a ‘retard,’ see the yellow bus,” Mr. Fab raps in one of his songs.

By the time I had a full grasp of Mr. Fab’s lyrics I had lost track of my comrades, otherwise I would ask them if they were concerned about the subjects the artist was rapping about. However, later that summer I noticed the possible influence of Mr. Fab’s rhymes on the community. I was packing up my things after a disability rights presentation at a youth program when a student said “My friends and I are just like you, we love to go dumb.” My heart sank, having spent the last hour talking to students about offensive words like “retarded.” I wondered if I needed to bring a thesaurus to my presentations and start going over all the terms that were similarly offensive.

I had a hard time understanding the willingness of advocates to not question someone who raps about yellow buses, but I had seen it happen before. A few years ago, a hip-hop group called the Black Eyed Peas released a song called “Let’s Get Retarded.” Since the band had been labeled in the media as conscious hip-hop, they got a free pass by the press for penning a song with offensive lyrics about intellectual disability.

The Peas themselves didn’t feel completely comfortable with their lyrics, since the version that gets played on the radio is called “Let’s Get it Started.” When I heard the version with the R-word I thought it was a parody. By only putting the version with the R-word on the album, could the Peas be thinking that the people who invest in the CDs don’t have qualms about their word choice because they are diehard fans?

I believe disability is thought of as a “safe” topic to lampoon on a hip-hop track. The backlash from using disability stereotypes isn’t as severe as it would be if racist or homophobic language was used. For instance, if the group released a song called “Let’s Put on Blackface,” I bet there would be some explaining to do.

This double standard of what cultural images are OK to showcase also happens in the world of film. Hollywood seems to reward actors like Sean Penn and Dustin Hoffman for taking on “challenging” roles when they portray people with disabilities, but playing someone of a different gender or race sometimes results in accusations of cultural appropriation. I have heard directors say that they feel they have to cast able-bodied actors as disabled characters so distributors will feel comfortable marketing their films. Yet it’s hard to believe that statement, because one sees relatively unknown actors playing people such as Nelson Mandela. These films still get distributed, not to everywhere in Middle America, but to many large cities. Every famous actor had a breakout role. It’s wrong to assume that audiences are not interested in seeing unknown actors.

It would be interesting if films starring non-disabled actors who portrayed people with disabilities had to face competition from movies that gave a more authentic version of the story. We could call them “crip versions” and release them in movie theaters or on YouTube. Maybe having versions of a so-called “Oscar worthy” film produced by and starring people with disabilities would get Hollywood to reflect on their bias against casting people with disabilities.

Another issue I see when it comes to film and other artistic mediums is the way people with disabilities are shown as “the other.” I often hear directors or painters say, “I’m trying to capture how so-and-so experiences the world.” While I agree that people have different perceptions, artists have a tendency to show people with disabilities as being burdened by isolation all the time. This is particularly true of people with autism or mental illness. Some artists are oblivious to the fact that people with disabilities can have friends and large support networks.

Simply boycotting artists, actors and singers who exploit people with disabilities does nothing to further dialogue. As I am writing this, a petition is circulating to get the TV network Showtime to remove a special by comedian Gary Owen. On the show Owen, uses the word “retarded” and questions whether people with disabilities have sex. Although I get the intent behind the petition, I believe a better way to deal with the issue would be to have a conversation with Owen. I would be curious about his past experience with people with disabilities. Did he interact with them at school or at the arcade growing up? In his act, he says he has a cousin with a disability. I wonder if Gary’s cousin thought his routine was funny, and therefore the comedian decided he had the OK to take the material out to the public.

There is a lot to learn from Owen, but if we ban his art we won’t get to have the conversation. Instead we may create another First Amendment martyr who will prosper at comedy clubs, billed as “the man who took on the Special Olympics.” Another unintended consequence of censorship is that TV execs might take things to the extreme and decide it’s too much of a bother to incorporate characters with disabilities into their product. While this idea seems far-fetched, it could already be happening. Writers and producers who are scared of offending us might already have decided to avoid the topic in their work. Threats of boycotts and censorship might lead to fewer roles for people with disabilities, not more.

Instead of asking for censorship to prevent stereotypes in the media, we could use these incidents to get artists with disabilities more exposure. Imagine if Showtime put together a special where comedians with disabilities confront stand-up comics who mock people with impairments. That would be ratings gold. This pattern could work similarly for musicians. Let’s say some artist made a track using the “R-word.” Instead of boycotting that artist, we could pressure them into giving musicians with disabilities exposure. Getting people to recognize the talents of people with disabilities may have more of a positive effect than any boycott could.

Some advocates want censorship of Owen, because they think people will be influenced by his stand-up routine. However, simply putting a routine on television will not start a new fad where making fun of disabled people is cool. I believe that by calling for more constructive criticism rather than censorship, people with disabilities will gain more. When Mr. Fab was ready to support the “stop the violence” campaign in Oakland, somebody could have asked him why he raps about yellow buses. When the Black Eyed Peas recorded the song “Let’s Get Retarded,” couldn’t someone have asked if there was a less offensive word to put in the song? Someone could also ask the director of “The Theory of Everything” why he felt it was necessary to include a scene where Stephen Hawking is dreaming about walking again at the end of the movie. These questions should not cause embarrassment, but rather lead to reflection.

In progressive circles, one questions race or questions gender. I would love to see activists add the phrase “question ability” and start addressing those stereotypes. If we could get more folks from Hollywood execs to kindergarten teachers to begin to think about their own judgments about people with disabilities, we might see shifts in understanding and acceptance.

The Mighty is asking the following: Describe a scene or line from a movie, show, or song that’s stuck with you through your experience with disability, disease or mental illness. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Originally published: June 8, 2016
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