Monday, March 28, 2011

Pixar's Cars and Ableist Language

My boys, like most other kids love to watch movies repeatedly.  They go through stages where they find a series and watch it until they can virtually quote the whole movie, before switching to yet another movie.  Last night as we lay cuddled on the couch, they were feeling nostalgic, or as nostalgic as a five year old and a nine year old can feel, and decided that they wanted to watch Cars.

Having not actually watched the movie in awhile, I had forgotten all of the references to class. The role of Mater was played by comedian Larry the Cable Guy (Daniel Lawrence Whitney). He is a member of the Blue Collar Comedy group aka a group of rednecks who do stand up comedy together.  As I was asking myself what it meant that Whitney played a beat up old deuteragonist tow truck, my oldest was hearing something I had completely overlooked.

He said, "Mommy, I think this movie is ableist." When I asked why, he answered, "because they are always calling people morons and idiots. It's really not nice mom, you're disabled and you deserve better." 

Okay, I have to take a moment to glow.  I thought that we would be having a conversation about class, and the children saw something far more obvious that I had overlooked.  Words like moron, and idiot are in  everyday common usage, and in fact, barely a week goes by, when I don't have to ask someone commenting on this blog not to use those words.   When we dislike someone, find their behavior outlandish, or disagree with their point, crazy is another adjective that we like to use as a descriptor. Many are aware enough not to call someone a retard, because the disabled community has made it very clear that this word is offensive, but words like moron or idiot, are still ubiquitous and many attempt to justify their usage in a negative manner by pulling out a dictionary.

We do not live in Orwell's 1984, and there are plenty of words that we can use to insult someone without being ableist.  Is it really so hard to call someone a jackass instead of moron?  There is a cost to the continual usage of these words in a negative fashion, and it is paid by the disabled community, whereas; choosing to stop using ableist words in one's speech causes no harm at all. Do we really need to know why something is offensive?  Isn't it enough that someone has said these words hurt, would you please stop using them, without twisting like a pretzel to tell them all the reasons why they are wrong to be offended? Pressing them to explain it to you is a sign of privilege, because there are plenty of explanations online.  The bottom line is that you cannot deny that these words were orginally used a descriptor for the differently abled and therefore, using them today as an insult is absolutely ableist.

My family and I talk about disability quite a bit because I am a disabled woman.  They know first hand how disability effects my life and limits the activities that I am able to participate in.  They see the cost when I push myself (i.e. play super crip), in order to get a task accomplished, due to the disabliest design of this world.  For the longest time I worried that my disability was costing those I love the most - my children.  I worried that they would not have a normal upbringing.  I worried that I could no longer be the mother to them that I promised them I would be, but listening to my son comment about his sudden dislike of a movie, based in the fact that he viewed it as ableist, has shown me that because I am disabled, I have been able to teach my son that the narrative that teaches us that the able bodied are always kind to those with disabilities is false.  Even though Destruction is by nature a truly giving child, this has helped him to empathize with others. 

In this space, we talk a lot about the media and the harmful messages that it sends.  When I think about the fact that Cars normalizes disabliest language, I cannot help but wonder how many people who have internalized this as natural, will watch the movie without a thought about who is being hurt.  Just like every other ism, disableism has to be actively taught to children, and when it can appear so innocuously in a children's cartoon, is it any wonder that the TAB believe that they have the right to demean and oppress us at will.  Words have power because they are how we shape and define our world.  I am thrilled that my nine year old would not look past oppression in one of his favourite movies, but I worry about the adults who not only ignore it, but utilize disablist language on a daily basis.
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What follows is for those who will not stop using disablist language merely because someone has asked.  Now that you know exactly why it is offensive, you will have to work harder to pretend that your privilege does not exist and that PWD are being to sensitive.