September 8, 2008

You've Come A Long Way, Retarded Baby

called_me_a_retard.jpgWas 1992 really so long, long ago? That's when Ellen O'Shaughnessy, a teacher of retarded special ed mentally disabled special needs kids wrote her PC heart-bearingly titled children's book, Somebody Called Me a Retard Today ... and My Heart Felt Sad.

In poo-pooing the kerfluffle over the Ben Stiller retard parody movie Tropic Thunder, children's book mandarin Roger Sutton called it "the worst-titled children's book ever." Fine. What makes my feel heart sad is someone paying attention to Ben Stiller at all; the dude hasn't made a decent movie since Zoolander. [And don't whine to me about The Royal Tenenbaums; that's Wes Anderson.]

Except for the title, though, it's remarkable how normal the book actually sounds today; if anything, it's the contemporary reviewers who savaged the book that come off as ridiculously missing the point:

From Publishers Weekly: ...Readers are never told what her problem actually is--rather, she is presented as just like everybody else: "I have friends. . . . I work hard in school. . . . I do my very best." Naturalistic art might have conveyed the narrator's special situation, but Garner's stylized watercolors--spare figures against white backgrounds--fail to suggest her uniqueness. It's hard to imagine children willing to pretend there are no differences between the "normal" and the mentally disabled; asking them to do so seems a curious way to foster empathy.

From School Library Journal: ...Beginning with the cover, a preachy tone is set. There is nothing to help youngsters empathize with a retarded child who is being ridiculed. The girl's abilities are presented in a defensive manner, rather than through a subtle unfolding of plot. There are no characters who change and grow, and there's no story line to catch and hold the attention of young listeners. It is doubtful that children will find the book convincing or reassuring.

Interesting that they both consider empathy to be the end game, not acceptance or integration or even respect. Not sure what, if any, significance there is in that. But from my experience, the emphasis on showing kids what they have in common and how each is unique in some way is standard operating procedure.

buy a used copy of Somebody Called Me a Retard Today ... and My Heart Felt Sad starting at $5 [amazon via read roger]

3 Comments

Maybe the kid isn't even a "special needs" kid at all. It could be a completely normal kid who is being called out for being unusual in some way that isn't developmental, because kids can be vicious and unthinking.

I'm fairly sure I was called "retard" as a child from time to time, by the more vanilla and vapid coterie.

Nice post DT. It's easy to offer knee-jerk thoughts in this area, and far harder to offer useful insights.

Language is a fluid concept and usage and definitions change over time. Plus social acceptance of word usage also changes. The UK census once had people categorized as dim, idiot, feeble-minded.

http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/census/events/census3.htm

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