With each new revelation of a callous comment or misdeed from his past, GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump alienates part of America’s population.
This week’s target: people with disabilities — especially those who are deaf.
Trump repeatedly called Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin “retarded” and directed demeaning sexual comments toward her on his show “The Apprentice” back in 2011, according to The Daily Beast. Trump would mock the sound of Matlin’s voice and treat her as if she were intellectually disabled.
Matlin is deaf and uses American Sign Language to communicate.
Matlin responded to the report on Friday, tweeting a statement that the word “retarded” is abhorrent to her, and that discrimination is a serious issue for millions of people in the U.S. who are deaf or hard of hearing. She promised she would use her voice to make herself heard in the election.
As many as three in 1,000 children are born with detectable hearing loss in at least one ear, and about 15 percent of American adults, or 37.5 million people, report some level of hearing loss. This means that Trump just disparaged a huge group of voters ― people with hearing loss, and those who know and love them.
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of the national advocacy group RespectAbility, decried Trump’s personal attack on Matlin, whom she called “a national icon.” Mizrahi said Trump’s comments reinforce the notion that people with disabilities are somehow “less than,” and perpetuate a stigma that keeps people with disabilities from the job market.
“It’s time for people to see people with disabilities for the ABILITIES they have,” Mizrahi said in a statement emailed to HuffPost. “Name calling brings us back to the dark ages and there is no place for it in 2016.”
Trump’s use of the word “retarded” to demean others is nothing new for him. Nor is his mockery of people with physical disabilities. During a speech in November, he imitated the limited arm movements of New York Times journalist Serge Kovaleski, who has arthrogryposis, a condition that restricts the way he moves his limbs.
Trump’s mockery of Matlin cuts to the core of a common stigma against deaf people: Because their voice can sound tonally different from the voices of hearing people, they are perceived as unintelligent. This misperception keeps some people with deafness from speaking out loud altogether, as it is difficult for them to regulate the sounds they make. This, in turn, can be misinterpreted by hearing people as an intellectual disability.
But more broadly, Trump’s biggest offense isn’t that he mistook one disability for another. It’s that he used ableist language to demean someone, Twitter user Pamela_Heard pointed out.
Stigma against people who are deaf can result in social exclusion, put people at a higher risk of depression, keep people from seeking help when they start to notice they have hearing loss, and illegally withhold opportunities at school and work.
One simple way to be more inclusive of people who are deaf, and people with disabilities in general, is to remember that words have power, and that they can be deployed as weapons to dehumanize others and to limit their abilities and opportunities, notes the Association of University Centers on Disabilities.
“’Retard’ and ‘retarded’ are derogatory and dehumanizing terms ― on par with the N-word used to describe African Americans, and various hateful terms used to describe members of the Jewish, gay and lesbian, and other minority communities,” the AUCD website says. “In addition, words and labels can cause others to think that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are not able to achieve the things that others can achieve.”
Here’s hoping Trump can learn something from the outrage caused by his remarks to Matlin, and change the way he speaks about people with disabilities — regardless of whether he wins the presidency.