Insults against disabled people must be eradicated

In 2004, when 17-year-old Adam Holland cheerfully smiled for a photograph in his art class, he had no idea that the image would later re-surface as a popular meme.

Perhaps you’ve even seen it. No, it’s not the iconic Bad Luck Brian or Scumbag Steve images that provide some giggles at the expense of another individual’s dignity.

It’s actually worse. And sickeningly offensive.

With one look at this recent meme, it’s clear that Holland’s physical features and cognitive ability are distinct from others. That’s because Adam Holland has Down syndrome.

According to ABC News, a radio station in Florida re-purposed the original photograph of Holland at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center into one in which he clutches a sign reading “Retarded News.” This photo was used as promotion for its “Retarded News” segment, where talk jockies would discuss odd news.

After learning of the photo’s usage, Holland’s family filed a lawsuit earlier this week against Cox Media, the owner of the Tampa, Fla., radio station WHPT-FM.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time a mentally disabled person has been mocked on the Internet. A quick Google search reveals that the Internet hosts a plethora of other tasteless graphics. This demonstrates a terrible epidemic in our nation — an epidemic of insensitivity toward the entire disabled community.

This isn’t an isolated incident. It’s actually a daily occurrence. For one, people constantly pepper everything from film dialogues to daily conversations with insulting uses of the word “retarded” to mean stupid or unintelligent. Even T-shirts and bumper stickers bare various forms of the word.

The Holland family might very well lose its battle in the courts since tort liability has protected the perpetrators of similar defamatory actions in the past. The Hollands’ request of $18 million in compensatory and punitive damages might even seem unreasonable.

Yet, this hefty punishment could deter others from denigrating helpless individuals such as Adam Holland in the future.

Though the outcome of the actual case is unclear, this does not mean the Holland cause should lose in the eyes of the average American. Even if the law does not side in his favor, we ought to help him.

In fact, every individual can support Holland and stand up for the millions of others in the disabled community by eliminating the word “retard” from daily usage.

“When [it is] used as a synonym for ‘dumb’ or ‘stupid’ by people without disabilities, it only reinforces painful stereotypes of people with intellectual disabilities being less valued members of humanity,” notes The Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, a foundation created to help those with intellectual disabilities.

The first step to eradicating insensitivity toward disabled persons is to recognize the existence of these harmful words in our vernacular. Freedom of speech, after all, does not entitle any person to degrade another group of individuals.

Surely, disposing this word from common usage might seem unreasonable. To some, political correctness is a last priority when their lives are inundated by other concerns.

But this isn’t just about political correctness. This is about being human. Every time someone uses this word, it trivializes the integrity of the disabled community. To create a world accepting of people from all walks of life, this change to word choice must occur.

In the end, able-bodied people can only say so much about the use of the word “retard.”

But hearing it from someone who experiences mental disability? Now that creates an impact.

“I’m a 30-year-old man with Down syndrome who has struggled with the public’s perception that an intellectual disability means that I am dumb and shallow,” wrote Special Olympics athlete John Franklin Stephens. “Being compared to people like me should be considered a badge of honor. No one overcomes more than we do and still loves life so much.”


Rini Sampath is a freshman majoring in international relations global business.


6 replies
  1. Hi-lar-e-us
    Hi-lar-e-us says:

    This was great. I’ve never seen the photo before. Some of them are fantastic. My favorite is, “I can count to potato”. Classic.

  2. Carol
    Carol says:

    Wonderful article, so pleased to see it. It is so important for college students to be aware of this issue. “People First” language itself has controversy and a range of opinions …..mighty make an interesting article (next year since finals are coming up)!

  3. Don Harmon
    Don Harmon says:

    This issue is unarguable. I remember something my mother told me: “You can explain and excuse misbehavior, but cruelty can never be adequately explained and is never excusable.”

  4. Stan B
    Stan B says:

    Actually, Freedom Of Speech carries no “hate” or “derogatory” exception. A Society’s commitment to Free Speech is judged not on how well we defend the rights of those making popular statements. It’s how well (or indeed whether) we make any defense of the rights of those spewing the most vile, offensive, horrific opinions and thoughts.

    “I may not agree with what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it,” is not just what some old, dead guy said a long time ago before humanity invented “sensitivity.” It is the core of all Free Speech.

    Campaigns to eradicate words from the lexicon always work so well, don’t they? We’ve gotten rid of the “g” word, the “n” word, the OTHER “n” word, that “f” word, and oh so many “c” words from our language. Not sure how we’re doing on the “i” word – but then, “i” people don’t know we’re talking about them, so it’s ok….

  5. Constantina K.
    Constantina K. says:

    This article is absolutely stunning. Such an important cause to discuss–your tone is so genuine. You are as incredible of a person as you are a writer.

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