By Jo Ann Simons, Ruderman Family Foundation Disabilities Advisor and CEO, Cardinal Cushing Centers
Whenever I see an old Seinfeld episode where Jerry is using one of the first portable phones, it reminds me of how many changes I have seen in my adult life. Those bulky phones now seem primitive. In reality, it wasn’t too long ago when they looked pretty impressive. Now we are walking around with phones the size of a deck of cards that also double as computers.
These thoughts also remind me of the positive changes I have seen in the disability world. We can argue the decision to hire an able-bodied actor to portray the Glee character who uses a wheelchair. But we have to celebrate the producers’ use of Lauren Potter, an actor with Down syndrome, to portray Becky, one of the hit show’s cheerleaders. And it was the decision to hire a 50- year-old actor with Down syndrome to portray Sue Sylvester’s older sister that I celebrated most. Her character died in the second season, but the storyline was realistic. The life expectancy of persons with Down is now close to 60 years old but only a few decades ago it was 20.
Having depicted both a teen and an older adult with disabilities, Glee is bringing another generation of actors into the storyline. Last season ended with Sue revealing her pregnancy, and this season we have learned that baby Robin—named for the actress who played Sue’s sister—also has Down syndrome. While we all wait to see exactly how this will be played out, I took a moment to celebrate how disability is finally being seen as just a part of humanity.
My moment of celebration was cut short when I read about commentator Ann Coulter’s recent description of President Obama as a “retard.” Despite an outcry from people with disabilities and others, she said she was not sorry for her use of the “R” word.
Coulter defended this with an irrational logic: she claimed the word is synonymous with the word “loser.” But that is the whole point… The high school kid who yelled “here comes the retard” as I drove my son to school was calling him a “loser.” That is exactly how that kid wanted my son to feel.
So I can’t fully enjoy the progress we have made with Glee, because there are still those like Ann Coulter who just don’t get that the world has changed.
— Jo Ann Simons