More on Obama's "Special Olympics" remark

Saturday, March 21, 2009 Comments

As a follow-up to my post yesterday, here are my thoughts.

In case you missed Obama's comments, the video is at the bottom of this post (click "read full post" below). Obama was telling Leno about bowling in the White House bowling alley.

"I bowled a 129," Obama told Leno.
"That's very good, Mr. President," Leno said sarcastically.
"It's like the Special Olympics or something," the president said.

Do I think that Obama meant to denigrate individuals with special needs? No, I don't think it was intentional. But that is precisely the problem. His remarks DID belittle those with special needs regardless of his intentions. And the fact that it was unintentional just points to his own underlying biases and stereotypes, which he is obviously not even aware of.

I've seen many comments online along the lines of, "lighten up, he was making fun of himself, not anyone else."

Yes, making fun of himself by equating himself with a person with special needs.

Look at what he says. He's saying he's bad at bowling. Ok, no big deal. He then goes on to say it was like the Special Olympics. The implication there is that he's SO bad at bowling that he's as "bad" as people with special needs.

Two problems with that. First, that he just assumes that the Special Olympics athletes are bad at bowling. To the contrary, I've seen many, many instances over the last day of Special Olympics bowlers who could embarrass Barry in a bowling match. Second, that comparing yourself to someone with special needs is funny. It's not funny, Mr. President. It's hurtful.

Even more hurtful - the fact that while he personally apologized to Tim Shriver, the Chairman of the Special Olympics board (and a Kennedy, so not someone that will give Obama a hard time about anything), he did not see fit to apologize directly to the American people. Instead, a staffer offered their opinion that he "didn't mean it." That does not constitute an apology to the special needs community, in my opinion.

Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton told reporters traveling with Obama that the president's offhand remark was not meant to disparage the Special Olympics, only to poke some fun at the commander-in-chief's bowling skills.

"He thinks that the Special Olympics are a wonderful program that gives an opportunity to shine to people with disabilities from around the world," Burton said.

When he's speaking specifically on disabilities, Obama says the right things:

"We must build a world free of unnecessary barriers, stereotypes, and discrimination.... policies must be developed, attitudes must be shaped, and buildings and organizations must be designed to ensure that everyone has a chance to get the education they need and live independently as full citizens in their communities."

-- Barack Obama, April 11, 2008

But given that his own comment unintentionally serves to perpetuate stereotypes rather than overcome them, I can only wonder if his speeches are not indicative of his true feelings.

This isn't the first time Barry O. has given reason for concern about his regard (or disregard) for people with disabilities. He expressed regret for voting in support of efforts to protect the life of Terri Schiavo, a woman who was profoundly disabled due to brain damage but was not on life support or in a coma. Rather, she had a family who loved her, was taking care of her, and wanted her to live. The only reason her life hung in the balance in the courts, was because of her disabilities.


I have three sons with autism. We are considering letting our older two, who will be 8 this summer, compete in Special Olympics track & field because they love to run. To my knowledge, they haven't heard the President's thoughtless comment. But wouldn't it be great for them to be able to see in the President someone who respects them and people like them, rather than seeing them as a punchline for a joke.

Did the president mean to hurt countless children and adults with disabilities and their families? No, but that is precisely what he did. He then refused to apologize directly to those he may have hurt with his comment. And from the President of the United States, we expect and deserve better.

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