Dropping the r-bomb


National Post - Wednesday March 10th, 2010

It was revealed by The Wall Street Journal in late January that at a private strategy session in August, Rahm Emanuel, Barack Obama's chief of staff, blasted the internally divisive political ploy proposed by some aggressively left-wing Democrats as "f-----g retarded."

An intense brouhaha, with disability advocacy groups, Special Olympics spokespeople and even Sarah Palin piling on, confirmed that the word "retarded" -- though still a bona fide medical term--has almost achieved the same social radioactivity as "the N-word."

Objectively there's no viable comparison between the two.

The N-word is an odious racial slur targeting an identifiable group of humans endowed with immutable genetic characteristics. From its inception, the N-word has been identified with real immiseration of blacks by real racists.

By contrast, "retarded" is merely descriptive of an objective condition, and applicable to culturally disparate individuals. The term may even be said to be a euphemism: "delayed," after all, suggests more hopefulness than is usually warranted for these unfortunates.

But, like its predecessors, "idiot," "moron" and "feebleminded," the once-benign "retard" has lost dignity through constant association with juvenile humour, as well as coarsely-couched impatience with normally intelligent people acting stupidly, Emanuel's peccadillo. Medical and support groups now prefer "intellectually disabled." (Strangely, the same fate has not befallen "gay," despite its parallel downward trajectory in popular usage.)

To be fair, although never enslaved or maligned as a group, the disabled, until relatively recently, were overlooked at best, and often shamed, depersonalized and marginalized in all societies. But again to be fair, the West can be proud of its progress on the disability file. Over the centuries our perceptions of the deformed, the diseased and the disabled as ritually unclean or loathsome have evolved into attitudes of compassion, inclusion and frank admiration.

The Paralympics, beginning this Friday, are a testimony to the sensible modern understanding of disability as a modifier, but not a disqualifier, for participation in athletic competition -- a far cry from the original Olympics where the slightest physical imperfection (even circumcision) disqualified candidates for inclusion.

None of this happened by magic. Activism amongst the disabled and their sympathizers followed the well-trodden path traversed by blacks, women and homosexuals in their legitimate, rights-claiming phases. Slowly but surely curbs became sloped, elevators were installed and wheelchair-friendly transportation was made available. Much remains to be done, but the principle of equal accessibility to public resources has been firmly established, a principle roundly supported by liberals and conservatives alike.

Until political activism morphed into a field of academic study. Then -- as with women's, queer and African-American studies -- disability studies fell prey to the post-modern anti-intellectual credo amongst intellectuals that "studies" means the advancement of "theory" and political activism rather than disinterested free inquiry. Many liberals may like what they see on campus, most conservatives not so much.

On its face, the relatively nascent phenomenon of disability studies is an attractive concept. Disability in literature (fairy tales, mythology, Homer, the Bible, Shakespeare), in the plastic and visual arts, in family dynamics, in sports, in politics: All of these make lush intellectual pickings for real scholarship.

Instead the field has been colonized by leftist ideologues. You'll find in its academic literature all the buzz words you see in race and gender studies: "progressive," "oppression," "bourgeois," "empowerment." Riffle through a few conference papers and it's the same old, same old: "At the heart of disability studies is a recognition that disability is a cultural construction; that is, that 'disability' has no inherent meaning"; and "The exciting thing about disability studies is that it is both an academic field of inquiry and an area of political activity ..."; and "Social justice is at the heart of disability theory and changing morality in the Western world."

In other words, disability studies' academic stakeholders have co-opted the disabled -- for the most part apolitical individuals seeking nothing more than a physical levelling of the playing field in order to pursue their unique personal goals -- as eternal Marxist victims of "ableist" oppressors. (The University of Toronto disabilities studies department claims it "aims to examine and deconstruct ableism.")

That's where the animus against "retarded" comes from. The word suggests there is a normative IQ against which the -er -"cognitively different" can, and should, be measured. Like feminists who won't hear of discrepancies between male and female faculties in maths and sciences, disability activists rebel against the bourgeois tyranny of the fully abled. The same denial of reality prevails.

(The deaf "culture" or "linguistic community" who resist integration through lip-reading is the most egregious example of the syndrome. Extreme disability correctness led two deaf lesbians to seek a congenitally deaf sperm donor to ensure a deaf child.)

Disabled individuals are owed all the help society can reasonably provide to live as normal a life as possible. Colour me ableist: I said it -the other N-word-"normal." For "normal" is what any reasonable disabled person wants to be. If disability studies academics resist this reality, they may be cognitively abled, but they are ethically ... delayed.

bkay@videotron.ca