The “R” Word: It’s No Joke

(This article was featured in our print issue, which was published on Nov. 10, 2012.)

I never thought that I would ever want to thank Ann Coulter.

When I saw that Ann Coulter tweeted, “I highly approve of Romney’s decision to be kind and gentle to the retard,” referring to President Barack Obama, I didn’t think much of it. When I saw that she followed up her tweet with another saying, “If [Obama’s] ‘the smartest guy in the room’ it must be one retarded room,” I began to think she was taking the word “retard” too far. Couldn’t she come up with a different word? When she defended herself with, “the only people who will be offended are too retarded to understand it,” I became angry. When she said, “Look, no one would refer to a Down Syndrome child, someone with an actual mental handicap, by saying ‘retard’…But no, no — these aggressive victims have to come out and tell you what words to use,” I became furious. That no one uses the word “retard” to describe mentally handicapped people is such an insensitive, inane statement that only a person like Ann Coulter could defend herself saying.

Coulter’s words and her defense are at best an indication of grade school vocabulary and naïveté, and at worst a cognizant belittling of those with mental disabilities. I lean more toward the latter. Frankly, it’s hard for me to believe that a 50- year-old author with a B.A. from Cornell and a law degree from Michigan Law School would use the same offensive word in back-to-back tweets without meaning to demean those with mental disabilities, especially when the word “stupid” would’ve sufficed.

While the use of the word “retard” used to bother me a lot, I’ve largely grown to accept it as a fact of life. The word has become ingrained in the American vernacular as an extension of the word, “stupid,” so I assumed that Coulter’s use was largely meant to mean this.

Coulter’s self-righteous attitude in her defense aggravated me more than anything else. How could she defend herself in the face of people like John Franklin Stephens, a thirty year old special Olympian with down syndrome, who wrote this open letter? Having a brother with learning disabilities, it is hard for me to read Mr. Stephens letter without becoming emotional. Mr. Stephens’s final sentences are particularly engraved in my mind,

“After I saw your tweet, I realized you just wanted to belittle the President by linking him to people like me. You assumed that people would understand and accept that being linked to someone like me is an insult and you assumed you could get away with it and still appear on TV. I have to wonder if you considered other hateful words but recoiled from the backlash. Well, Ms. Coulter, you, and society, need to learn that 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. Come join us someday at Special Olympics. See if you can walk away with your heart unchanged.” 

At the same time, I must thank Ms. Coulter, as much as it leaves a taste of battery acid in my mouth. Not only has she brought attention to the issue of ableism (discrimination/ mockery of those with disabilities), she’s inspired me, and I’m sure many others like me, to speak out and take action to support those with disabilities.

From Michael Savage saying that, “99% of the cases, it’s a brat who hasn’t been told to cut the act out,” to President Obama referring to his bad bowling as “the Special Olympics or something,” there is a trend in belittling the struggles and accomplishments of people like Mr. Stephens and my brother. I’m disappointed to be able to say that I’ve heard some ableist comments here at Northwestern. With a recent CDC report placing rates of autism at 1 out of 88 children, we, as a community, need to be more sensitive about these issues. As such, I’d like to thank you, Ms. Coulter, for bringing more awareness to the mentally disabled, despite your total lack of humanity.


photo- Gage Skidmore

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