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Lessons from a beloved sister

Letter to the Editor | Thursday, November 6, 2008

Growing up with a younger sister with intellectual disabilities has taught me a lot of things, how to love someone when the world tells you she’s not worth loving and what it means to be a human being, for example.

But life with Olivia has also exposed me to one of the greatest remaining barriers of ignorance and hatred left in our society: our treatment of people with intellectual disabilities. The discrimination and disdain that those with disabilities are met with is as hurtful and hateful as any discrimination. While we intoxicate ourselves with visions of acceptance and equality this week, we turn a blind eye to the world’s most marginalized population: the 156 million with intellectual disabilities. Here and abroad, they are held like criminals in institutions, shunned from society and dehumanized. In the U.S., they are the victims of a silent genocide; nearly 90 percent of American fetuses with Down syndrome are aborted.

Equally startling is our inability to recognize our own hatred, to diagnose our archaic social stigmas. As a Catholic university, we should strive towards the realization and respect for all people’s dignity and value. We should be leading the way in this movement for humanity.

But two events this week set us back. First, the movie Tropic Thunder will be presented by the SUB this weekend. This movie was met with controversy when it was released for its prolific use of the word “retard.” Dozens of organizations, including Special Olympics and Best Buddies, picketed the film, calling its depiction of people with intellectual disabilities hateful and backwards. And having witnessed the pain that the word causes my sister and those like her, I agree. It is hate speech, on par with any racial epithet. I call all of you to think of my sister and her wisdom before you submit to Hollywood’s depiction of those with intellectual disabilities as “retards” worth nothing more than a cheap laugh.

I thought that the hate speech was limited to a poor choice in SUB movies, but yesterday’s Observer proved me wrong. I am all for freedom of the press; I am not for the publishing of hate speech, none of us are. If Barack Obama was described as the n-word in this newspaper or Sarah Palin as the c-word, anarchy would ensue. But the description of Joe Biden as “a retard” was printed without a problem. Hate speech is hate speech no matter who its victims are and has no place in our newspaper.

I encourage all of you to think before you use the word “retard” in any context, jocular or hateful. Think of Olivia. Happy Birthday Olivia, I love you.

Soeren Palumbo


Sorin College

Nov. 6