Sunday, February 7, 2010

Shriver follow-up

Last week, I wrote about Tim Shriver of the Special Olympics reaching out to Rahm Emanuel, President Obama's Chief of Staff, over Emanuel's use of the r-word. Shriver sent a letter to Emanuel which was shared widely within and the without the disability community. I was impressed with the letter because Shriver didn't ask for an apology and didn't set up Emanuel for a public flogging. Rather, he tried to engage Emanuel in the systemic effort to raise awareness around language and end use of the r-word.

Events over the past week have reinforced my opinion that Shriver took the correct strategic approach. Early in the week, the White House set up a meeting between Emanuel, Shriver, and a few other leaders from disability. I don't know exactly when, but sometime before the meeting news broke that former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin called for the resignation of Emanuel. Palin has a child who is a person with Down Syndrome. I can understand what might have motivated Palin to make the statement. Just yesterday, I spoke with a friend of mine who has a sister with an intellectual disability. When I asked him his thoughts on language, he told about his mother, who, when he and his sister were children, would verbally attack anyone who used the r-word. Whether you have a family connection to disability or you don't, some people feel so strongly about language they have no choice but to aggressively and harshly attack use of offensive language. In fact, I've read that some people believe Palin's attack on Emanuel opened the door for the meeting with Shriver.

The problem with Palin's approach is that the intent of the attack is not clear. Perhaps her intent was the same as Shriver's, engage more people in an effort to use inclusive, people first, and empowering language. But, given Palin's place in politics, her actions could easily be interpreted as a left hook against the democratic party. Events later in the week made it a little easier to judge Palin's intent. During his program on Wednesday, Conservative Radio Host Rush Limbaugh said, "There’s going to be a retard summit at the White House. Much like the beer summit between Obama and Gates and that cop . . ."

Limbaugh's comment put Palin in a sticky political situation, but one in which she could have rallied more non-partisan support around language and disability rights, if she had held Limbaugh to the same standard as Emanuel. She didn't. In a piece published on the

Whether it matters or not, Limbaugh did use the word in a similar context. He used it in an effort to degrade democrats and people in the White House.

Unfortunately, in the coverage around Emanuel, Palin and Limbaugh, the goal Shriver and thousands of others has taken a back seat. It's the partisan hatred which is earning attention, not the effort to embrace language adopted by people with disabilities.

But in Chicago, one media spokesperson is shining light on the correct issue. Here is a link to brief commentary by Rob Johnson, who has a sibling with a disability.

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