Nearly a week ago, President Obama appeared on “The Tonight Show.” Personally, I would have preferred he appear on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” but he could have done worse than Leno. He could have appeared with Jimmy Kimmel, infamous for making fun of little people. Whatever the program, unlike some critics who called his participation unpresidential, I was pleased with his decision to appear on Leno. At least, until the next morning.
I didn’t watch Obama on Leno, but I soon learned that his appearance unhinged the confidence he had built with the nation’s disability community. Joking with Leno about his skills as a bowler, the President used people with intellectual disabilities as a punchline when he compared his ten pin prowess to competing in the Special Olympics.
Though the President quickly apologized to Tim Shriver of the Special Olympics, the apology didn’t quell the furious debate that followed within and without the disability community. If the President’s comment had been an oversight, a poor choice of words at the wrong time, perhaps the apology would have closed the books on the issue.
When Obama wanted to make a point that he was a really bad bowler, the best way he could illustrate that was a joke about the Special Olympics. Obama’s mistake was a reflection of the negative images that still dominate disability in this country. The negative images are rooted in prejudice that comes from generations of exclusion, isolation, segregation and discrimination. To address the prejudice will take, not an apology, but a major policy shift and systems change. It will take a dramatic effort to include the voice and concerns of disability in all levels of government. Through his campaign comments, through policy statements, and through appointments he has made, President Obama has hinted that a major shift could become a reality under his administration. In fact, just before his appearance on Leno, at a town hall meeting in