Americans with mental retardation have been in the news recently.
First, President Obama committed a regrettable indiscretion on the Jay Leno Show by comparing his own bowling ineptitude with the level of skill on display — so the joke goes — at the Special Olympics.
But honest people may feel a little uncomfortable with excessive sanctimony about this incident. In fact, at some point most of us have probably been guilty of making or being amused by similar digs at our fellow citizens with mental retardation.
For example, a few years ago in Doonesbury, cartoonist Gary Trudeau, referring to the non-traditionally high levels of medals and ribbons awarded during modern military campaigns like Panama and Grenada, referred to them as a sort of Special Olympics for the armed forces.
Everyone gets a medal.
To many people a Special Olympics joke seems harmless enough; mere innocuous fun at the expense of a subset of fellow citizens who for one reason or another simply aren’t able to learn as well as the rest of us do.
But here’s another news story so wretched that I’m embarrassed to admit that it occurred in my own community: several employees of the Corpus Christi State School, a state-run facility that houses nearly 400 citizens with mental retardation, are accused of goading residents into fight club-style bouts and recording them on their cell phones. One inspired attendant allegedly supplied an accompanying play-by-play voiceover. Apparently the goal of these misguided "caretakers" was their own amusement.
This is the dark underside of all Special Olympics jokes. When I was in college I worked in a similar state-run facility, a dormitory housing 40 men with profound retardation. They ranged in age from 18 to over 60, but the highest mental age was about 18 months. Many had other disabilities, as well. A few were blind or deaf. Only one had sufficient mental capacity to utter a few disconnected words.
They were infants in the bodies of men, and they needed the same around-the-clock care. We got them up in the mornings and put them to bed at night. We fed them and gave them their medicines. During the day we tried as much as possible to keep them dressed, and every evening we pushed their clothes into a massive urine- and feces-soaked mound and gave them all a shower.
These aren’t men and boys who will ever be able to participate in the Special Olympics or have any other ordinary contact with the world. To a large extent they had been abandoned by their families; visitors were rare. Most of the caretakers tried to do more or less responsible jobs, but we were poorly trained and poorly paid, and most of us soon moved on to other jobs. The residents stayed behind, for a lifetime.
I’ve never accepted the romantic view that people with disabilities like these were created for some special purpose, to instruct us, for example, in humility or awe. If they were designed for such a purpose, divine providence is asking a lot of them. In some respects their stories are incidental tragedies that include damaged chromosomes, accidents, or parents who drank too much.
Nevertheless, there’s something to be learned. To walk for the first time into the dayroom of a dorm like the one where I worked is to be almost overwhelmed with sympathy for fellow humans trapped in their dismal conditions.
But the feeling lasted only a few days. Even in the near-absence of ordinary intellect, personalities quickly emerged and a unique humanity was evident in each of the residents. And at the risk of idealizing a dreary situation, I’ve never encountered a sweeter, gentler group of men with less of the malicious nastiness that we often find among our peers. No Special Olympics jokes here, and no one would ever goad anyone else into fighting for his own amusement. That takes "normal" intelligence.
(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail him at jcrisp(at)delmar.edu.)