Dan Friedman
The Wheel World, p.2

II. "I’m not a retard."

One of the reasons that having a voice is crucial is because it allows these films' characters to show that their physical situation is not related to their mental condition. With Dr Stephen Hawking still alive and arguably the greatest mind since Einstein, this is a point that should not have to be made – but it patently still does. Pumpkin and Michael both make this distinction in a blunt way and title of this section is more or less a quotation by characters in both Rory O’Shea was Here and Pumpkin.

Clearly this begs the question of how individuals in our society should address people who are indeed mentally "retarded" (which is itself a loose and derogatory term for a vast array of conditions). There are a number of measures of social, emotional, and academic aptitude by which to measure people; however low on any of those measures certain individuals are, they still deserve respect. The point of the films though, is that these thumbnail measures tend not to correlate with one another. We do not assume that someone who excels in one area of development to excel in others -- a professor of rocket science is not necessarily the life of the party, a professional standard quarterback, and a qualified social worker. Likewise, someone with challenges in one area of development should not be assumed to be challenged in others. Yet we often assume that someone who appears to have a lack of mental acuity is socially and physically inactive.

The connection between physical and mental debilitation is hard to shake. In 1981, the children’s television show Blue Peter publicised the heroic story of cerebral palsy-sufferer Joey Deacon specifically to show his indomitable spirit and active mind, despite his physical difficulties. Joey was incomprehensible to all but his friend Ernie who, able to understand his friend’s stories, typed out his autobiography one keystroke at a time. Unfortunately the story of Joey Deacon led not to an outpouring of support for cerebral palsy or an understanding of the predicament, but to an epidemic of name-calling. For years after the show aired in the British Isles, if you said something silly or stupid, you would be greeted with spasticated hand actions and a grunting inability to speak. "Joey Deacon" thus became a household name in the British isles -- as an insult.

So disabled people need a "voice" -- and, in these films at least, an external one. Not only does Ernie give voice to Joey, as Rory does to Michael, but that same voice provides an independent adult living space for both disabled characters. Funds from Joey’s autobiography provide money for a purpose-built house, while Michael’s advocacy of his own and Rory’s cause won them a place in a sheltered housing project. Rory O’Shea was Here is not only an affirmation of the life of the soul and the mind but also a complex assessment of the role of "voice" in linking different categories of marginalization. The image of Joey Deacon now seems part of a sexist, racist, prejudiced past that is no longer acceptable and against which, as Michael shows, there is legal recourse.

Disability changes our own voices as well -- with similarly complicated results. Despite twenty years of "Politically Correct" language (parodied in Saved), it is clear from the vernacular that there is still a lot of prejudice. The contemporary prevalence of the word "retard" in schools, streets, and boardrooms – like the word "gay" when used with obnoxious intent – is but one example. Indeed, like the usage of "gay" with a negative connotation, "retard" is a sign of understandable insecurity. In a twenty-first century world in which family structures are breaking down and the state is increasingly unwilling to provide support, popular culture fetishizes the physical and mental fitness necessary for success, and even survival. It is no coincidence that the English forerunners of "retard" -- the words "spastic" and "Joey" – became synonymous with "idiot" in Britain in the 1980s just as Margaret Thatcher was dismantling the society she claimed did not exist.

As shown by Matt Dillon's insensitive character in There's Something About Mary, among many many others, using the word "retard" is easy, funny (because taboo), lazy, and defensive. Unlike the word "stupid," for example, "retard" categorizes the person thus labelled into an amorphous and relatively disempowered group. Yet even the very amorphousness of the group makes us uneasy. When is someone merely "slow"? When is she truly developmentally disabled? The power of "retard" is, in part, the fact that it could be any of us or anyone we know.

The word "retard" is a good clue as to the twin insecurities of physical fragility: our insecurity is both physical and mortal. We are all physically insecure because the line between fitness and absolute immobilization is so terribly thin: a jump misjudged by milliseconds, a stray virus, a misplaced gene, a drunken driver can all push us across that line with a single arbitrary shove. We are caught between the empathy and pathos of the situation on the one hand and the sense that seeing people in wheelchairs the reminds us that we are trapped in our bodies. As shown admirably by Rubin Carter (Denzel Washington) in Hurricane or by Javier Bardem in Mar Adentro the body is our prison for this lifetime – it’s just a more restrictive or less restrictive one depending on your luck in inheriting a body.

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Image: from Rory O'Shea was Here / Inside I'm Dancing

July 2005

Golden Calf
Jacob J. Staub

Israel on Campus
A Conversation with Sam Brody and Zach Gelman

Samaria for Rent
Margaret Strother-Shalev

Does Mysticism Prove the Existence of God?
Jay Michaelson

Patrolling the Boundaries
of Truth

Joel Stanley

The Wheel World
Dan Friedman

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From previous issues:

Giving Thanks to Elijah in Indian Manhattan
Jonathan Schorsch

Ari Belenkiy

Wrestling with Steve Greenberg
Jay Michaelson

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