Hours before the Leno show was taped, at the town hall meeting in L.A., Gary Karp, author and activist, asked President Obama a question:
Q I’m Gary Carr [sic], and Mr. President, thank God for you. (Applause.) Sir, my question regards the true renaissance that’s happening with people with disabilities. They are an emerging population — millions of people with more potential in capacity, more mobile, more educated, more healthy, more empowered technology, but still trapped in very, very old social models that see them in terms of tragedy and charity and need and care. And the modern population of people with disabilities simply does not fit that model.
And as your plan succeeds and you generate these jobs, and as baby boomers retire, we’re going to need every single person of capacity to work that we can. And that must include many, many, many thousands, if not millions, of people with disabilities. (Applause.)
So — I see you nodding your head, so my first question is, do you subscribe to what I’m saying, and next of all, can you talk about how your disability agenda will release this emerging potential that’s currently wasted and untapped?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, you are exactly right, that we need everybody. And every program that we have has to be thinking on the front end, how do we make sure that it is inclusive, and building into it our ability to draw on the capacities of persons with disabilities.
That’s true on the education front, where our recovery package increases funding for children with disabilities. It is true in terms of how Hilda Solis, our Secretary of Labor, will be thinking about our training programs, to make sure that we are not excluding from training for high-tech jobs, the new jobs of the future, persons with disability.
It means enforcing the ADA and fighting back on some court opinions that have tried to narrow in ways that I think are inappropriate the original intent of that legislation.
So one of the things that I think is important is to make sure, as you pointed out, that we don’t see this as an afterthought, a segregated program, but we are infusing every department, every agency, every act that we take with a mindfulness about the importance of persons with disabilities, their skills, their talents, their capacity.
That I think is the approach that my administration is going to take, and we hope that by taking that approach that attitude will infuse state and local governments that are also receiving federal money. Okay? (Applause.)
The president spoke about infusing 'every department, every agency, every act that we take with a mindfulness about the importance of persons with disabilities, their skills, their talents, their capacity.' Hours later, he made the Special Olympics joke.
Negative attitudes toward those with disabilities are so ingrained that many who watched the show tell me they didn't even notice the joke. Of course not. We hear these kinds of jokes every day. People with disabilities are still openly mocked. Many who would recoil with horror at being called bigots still laugh at jokes like this and still make jokes like this.
Raising this topic inevitably brings a knee jerk reaction from some who cry out that we are thin-skinned, overly sensitive. They fail to make the connections between the underlying negative attitudes toward people with disabilities that dehumanize them and the fact that it leads to subhuman treatment. We don't even call crimes against the disabled that. We call it neglect when a person with a disability is found living in circumstances that horrify us and are considered criminal for others. When our institutions fail people with disabilities, whether through abuse or neglect, we as a society fail to address it until the media becomes involved and, even then, take years to address one instance. We pay caregivers for people with disabilities such low wages that many go hungry or dirty. Thank God I don't have to live like that, people say.
No wonder jokes like this abound. It's the tip of the iceberg of what's really going on in our treatment of people with disabilities. In fact, we are so busy as a society laughing at these jokes that we don't even take time to look at solutions to the problem. What if we changed our attitudes and took the issue of employment of people with disabilities seriously? What if we built housing that was accessible and provided transportation that was both affordable and available? What if we stopped making jokes about the Special Olympics and volunteered for it instead? What if we started looking at the potential of people with disabilities rather than warehousing them and excluding them from opportunities?
This would require change. First, people would have to realize that joking about disability is adolescent and dehumanizing. They'd have to believe that people with disabilities are fully human, with the same inherent dignity and worth as - well - the able bodied. Some people don't believe this. Others believe they believe it, but they laugh along. They would deny they believe stereotypes, but they laugh at them all the same. And their children laugh along, perpetuating this behavior.
Perhaps some people are laughing out of embarrassment at the way people with disabilities are treated. Unfortunately, although some of those laughing may simply need to change their attitude and are open to change, others are true bigots. These kinds of jokes just encourage them in their bigotry and reinforce their contempt for people with disabilities.
Wasted and untapped. That's how Gary Karp described the potential of people with disabilities. It's so true. I see it in so many lives. I've cried many tears about it.
But, no, I've never ever found it amusing.
The level of suffering caused by our nation's failure to address the needs of people with disabilities so they can attain their potential is staggering.
I hope people can hear the question being asked over the laughter.