Ending the 'R-Word' as a Punch Line

"I have more respect for retarded people than Paris Hilton" - Chelsea Handler on The Howard Stern Show, March 5, 2014

March 5 marked the annual observance of the "Spread the Word to End the Word" campaign. The movement's goal is to get people to stop using the word "retard" and to educate people about its harmful and demeaning effect on people with disabilities. Established during the 2009 Special Olympics World Winter Games, people are asked to go online and sign a pledge to stop using the word.

Sadly, there is still a long way to go.

On the day of observance, Chelsea Handler appeared on The Howard Stern Show and used intellectually challenged individuals as the butt of a joke. Before everybody gets fired up and starts a campaign vilifying Miss Handler, I would ask that instead we use it as an educational opportunity. Through a calm dialogue, maybe we can get both Chelsea and Howard to understand the impact of exclusionary and demeaning words such as the "R-word."

Clearly Chelsea Handler is a popular comedienne and she puts her celebrity to good use. She is known to support various charities, in particular: Alzheimer's Association, American Foundation for AIDS Research, DoSomething.org, KaBOOM!, Soles4Souls and Stand Up to Cancer. I point this out because I would like to separate Chelsea Handler the "character" vs. the "person." Her character as a comedian is that of a sharp-tongued, no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners narcissist; but her charity work clearly shows that she is anything but that.

As a matter of fact, in an NBC.com interview dated 06/22/11, Miss Handler was asked why she was involved with GLAAD and demonstrated her level of compassion and empathy:

GLAAD I like to get involved with because I think it's important to be involved with charities that don't necessarily reflect what you're dealing with in your life. So, for the gay and lesbian community, even though I'm not gay I think it's really important to speak out for people that aren't necessarily dealing with the same circumstances you're dealing with and don't have the benefit of the health care system or the government that you do.

Miss Handler, it is with complete respect for your work as a comedian and an understanding of how tough it can be to be funny off the cuff -- as you were doing on The Howard Stern Show -- that I ask for you to adopt the same philosophy you have towards the LGBT community towards those that are intellectually disabled. I ask that you take into account that these people often cannot defend themselves and that words influence opinions and attitudes. People with intellectual disabilities deserve dignity and respect... not to be the punch line of a joke.

As for Howard Stern, I have been a super-fan of his for over 20 years. I have probably listened to every show in its entirety for the past 15 years -- certainly all of them since he moved to Sirius. The Howard Stern Show was the first laugh I enjoyed after the stillbirth loss of our firstborn daughter, and it is the one of the things I enjoy during my alone time.

The show has evolved with the times and I think that is what makes the show so great. As Howard has grown as a comedian and interviewer, the show has grown with it and as rare a feat as it may be, and as hard as it may be to believe, the show is probably better now that it has ever been in the 30-plus years of its existence.

Howard has stopped using the "F-word" to describe gays after George Takei explained how hurtful the word was; he has even stopped using a derogatory term for little people as it applies to Eric "The Actor" Lynch. Yet the "R-word" still remains. Two members of The Wack Pack are Gary and Wendy. Both are intellectually disabled, and both have the moniker "The Retard" added to their name.

Howard, it is with "peace and love" that I ask that you to reconsider the use of those terms. I am a fan, I will still listen. I know you have a huge heart. As the father of three children myself (one with intellectual disabilities) I just want to enjoy the show without cringing from that word. I am certain if Emily, Debra or Ashley had intellectual disabilities, you would be more sensitive. So why not extend that consideration to others?

Ultimately people are free to say what they want. I am not looking to censor anybody as much as I am to educate about the hurtful nature of words such as "retard" to those impacted or that have family members impacted by intellectual disabilities. Unfortunately, it takes many of us that are middle-aged or older having a personal connection to understand the hurtful nature of words such as the "R-word" because growing up, it just wasn't understood. I know, because my circle of friends and I used the word as well. Then I had my beautiful and amazing daughter. She is perfect and just so happens to be autistic. It changed my world and enlightened me in ways that most would have never thought possible for this beer-swilling, knuckle-dragging, sports-loving, more-of-a-left-side-on-Darwin's-Evolution-of-Man-chart kind of guy. I am so thankful for her... and I believe that she and the countless others with intellectual disabilities deserve our respect and support.

So Howard and Chelsea... are you up to take the pledge? Such a little thing means so much.

All you have to do is go to http://www.r-word.org/ and pledge your support.