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In light of the recent backlash from advocates of and people with intellectual disabilities about the R-word (retarded) and the derogatory slang “Downsy” being used in a scene of Universal Pictures’ new movie, “The Change-Up,” I’ve come to a conclusion: Universal Pictures thinks bigotry is both acceptable, and marketable.

The movie, released August 5th was panned by critics and flopped at the box office.  Yet many who did go to see it were shocked and angered by an early scene in the movie where Ryan Reynolds’ character asked Jason Bateman’s character if his young twins were “retarded” because they weren’t speaking, and then quipped “I don’t know, this one looks a little Downsy.”

By Monday morning I had seen many Facebook posts by my friends that had either seen the movie or had been told of the scene by someone who had, and all of them reacted with a mix of shock, anger, disgust and sadness.

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The sad truth however is this shouldn’t shock our community. Even sadder, it should definitely not shock us that this movie came from Universal Pictures, a movie distributor with a history of marketing bigotry for laughs.  It was less than a year ago that the Vince Vaughn comedy “The Dilemma” (distributed by Universal Pictures) was blasted in the Gay and Lesbian community for using the word “gay” not just as a joke in the movie, but as part of the trailer to market the movie.

CNN’s Anderson Cooper led the public outrage on his own “Anderson Cooper 360″ show as part of a week long series on bullying, and continued to speak out when he told Ellen DeGeneres on Ellen that the joke was inappropriate and said, “We’ve got to do something to make those words unacceptable.”

With a brand name like Cooper out in front, and the advocacy muscle of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) community, Universal agreed to pull the trailer and release a new version without the word “gay” though they did not pull it from the movie.

I bring up this comparison for three reasons:

  1. To encourage all the friends, family members, self-advocates and anyone else who thinks that people with intellectual disabilities deserve to be respected and included in society, to keep speaking out.  Keep calling Universal and the producers and writers of “The Change-Up.”
  2. To challenge you to an exercise. Go to this page and replace the word “gay” with “retarded” and I dare you to find one part that doesn’t transcend.  Then keep asking yourself, “Why is the outcry for one injustice heard so much louder than another? And what am I willing to do about it?”
  3. To challenge Universal Pictures to react with a minimum of the same urgency and corrective action shown for “The Dilemma” plus an added demonstration to show they’ve learned a lesson.  Apologize. Pull the movie from theaters. Edit the scene. Re-release the movie if you so choose, without the scene.  Commit to use your influence and reach to educate your audiences about inclusion, tolerance and acceptance of all people.  Help us spread the word that words matter, that language absolutely reflects attitude, and then back those words up by demonstrating in your entertainment distribution that laughs do not have to come at the cost of anyone’s human dignity.

As of this writing, Universal Pictures’ only response to our community’s outcry has been suppression.  Yesterday, advocates plastered both the Universal Pictures Facebook page and The Change-Up’s Facebook page with messages that the R-word is not a punchline, and with calls to action to remove the word from the movie and promote the abilities of people with special needs.  As of late Monday night, both Facebook pages removed the ability for fans to comment on each respective wall, thereby suppressing the voice of our community.  The Universal Pictures page even went so far as to change their main page picture from The Change-Up promotional poster to a generic logo and removed a post on their page promoting the movie in which the majority of comments were from our community.

It’s the social web equivalent of shutting us in the basement in shame and humiliation, for fear that others may find out that we exist, and that our existence makes them look bad.

Too bad for Universal Pictures, this isn’t the 1960s.  Basement doors were opened long ago thanks to courageous leaders like Loretta Claiborne, Ricardo Thornton, Eddie Barbanell and millions of Special Olympics athletes and others with intellectual disabilities who show the world every day that our community is not just one that is content to exist, but one that is ready, able and willing to lead the fight for justice and inclusion.

I hope you’ll join me and the millions of Special Olympics athletes who fight for inclusion every day by continuing to insist that our community’s voice is heard.  You can still post on the Universal and The Change-Up Facebook pages and comment on their posts (unless they delete those too).  You can continue to tweet (see below), you can share the link for this blog post (http://specialolympicsblog.wordpress.com/2011/08/09/universal-pictures-thinks-biggotry-is-acceptable-and-marketable) and this article (http://www.r-word.org/r-word-The-Change-Up-Universal-Studios.aspx) on the www.r-word.org website to drive people to action, and you can call and email Universal Pictures to have your voice heard (see below).

Keep fighting.  I know I will, because when I watch the courage our athletes display everyday to be respected and included, the only question I ask myself is – How can I not?

Tweeting for respect? Copy and paste these:
. @UniversalPics The #Rword is no punchline. Remove it from #TheChangeUp & promote abilities of people w/ special needs. Pledge http://www.r-word.org

. @UniversalPics Why are you suppressing our voice? Remove #Rword from #TheChangeUp & respect all human dignity. http://j.mp/oEIPKP

. @UniversalPics thinks bigotry is acceptable. I think they are wrong. Help me remove the #Rword from #TheChangeUp. http://j.mp/oEIPKP

Want to call or email to demand respect? Here’s who to contact:
Main Line of Universal to call and ask for contacts below:
(818) 777-1000

Nikki Rocco
President of Distribution
Universal Pictures
Nikki.Rocco@nbcuni.com

Adam Fogelson
Chairman, Universal Pictures
Adam.Fogelson@nbcuni.com

Learn more
Find more action steps and read the full story on “The Change-Up & The R-word” at R-word.org.

Read more
Here are some other blogs about this to read (and share!):
“Just a Word: The Change-Up Edition” from Fighting Monsters with Rubber Swords
“Help Wanted: Screenwriters with Common Deceny” from Missfancypants’s World
“The Change-Up Gets Thumbs Down for Disability Slurs” from About.com Guide to Parenting Special Needs
“A New Movie Makes Fun of Kids with Special Needs. Any of You Think That’s Funny?” from To the Max at Parents.com
“Take a Stand” from Something Extra Equals Extraordinary Blessings
“Pushing for Change!” from Our Little Chilli Tribe
“The Change-Up” from A is for Aiden
“Stop Disability Slurs! The Change-Up” from The Chronicles of Ellie Bellie Bear
“The Change Up” from Nuts about Nathan
“It’s Only the R-word” from Gathers No Moss
“Cowards: ‘The Change-Up’ and Disability Slurs” from Bringing the Sunshine

26 thoughts on “Universal Pictures Thinks Bigotry is Acceptable, and Marketable

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  3. i now there is some movies out on dvds and in movie Teathers like tropicel thunder that they made that they should not sell them in stores they have the bad ward of the r-ward that should not be in the movies if there is people like us who are in Special Olympics not to have that ward in no other movies if they use that kind of ward in the movie they should not be filming it in movie Teathers or they should not be in them if they can not say good nice words from Kristina have them stop the acters saying the r-word in the filming movies being made before going across the world in theathers from Kristina

  4. Until I had a special needs kid, i did not realize how the word “retard” hurts. People who are offended by other words are usually the ones in the position of speaking up themselves, in other words it offendes them personally. My child is deaf and cant speak for herself, so its up to us to speak for her. I just try to tell people when i hear that word that its offensive… the word is part of our “language” for years and its going to take an effort to get people to understand that its not a word that should be used in conjunction with anything. Also “little yellow school bus” jokes… really??

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  6. As the mother of an 11 year old with Down syndrome I was appalled, but really not surprised by this latest slur by Hollywood. It amazes me that writer’s put it in the script but it saddens me that the actors actually agree to say those awful lines. I wanted to see this movie, but of course will not. I have actually lost respect for Writer, Director AND actors for participating in this. I’ve read the comments above and was very moved by the well written Blog – thank you Ryan! – as well as the well thought out responses. We really should work together with GLADD – we would have a much stronger voice. Would be nice if we could get more celebrities to make Public Service Announcements to voice their outrage that this is still deemed acceptable by Hollywood. “There but for the grace of God go I.”

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  8. Terrific post, Ryan, but as a vocal member of both the disability justice community and the queer community, I want to clarify your point, “Why is the outcry for one injustice heard so much louder than another?”
    It is not that dominant American culture is “hearing” one voice louder than the other: it’s that there are historical differences between our specific fights and thusly our use of social media:
    - Key national legislative fights for people with IDD have been for special education, de-institutionalization, and services rather than identity-based/hate-crime-based (until recently with Rosa’s Law and similar legislation).
    - Local movements for people with IDD, such as self advocacy groups, while not at all new, remain relatively isolated and insular, focused on local needs like closing institutions or acquiring jobs rather than national needs. Local LGBTQ groups on the other hand often focus on federal legislation or rights movement to bring rights across the country to isolated areas (like the Equality Across America campaign).
    - The voices in our historical fights have differed. It used to be parents until the self-advocacy movement began but for the reasons listed plus more, it has taken time to get the concept of “voice” for people with IDD out there. In response to your question, “Why is there more attention to one group” – again, it’s not attention. It’s time and volume of voices. It has taken thirty years of activism to get our voices out there as queer folks, and we need to rally behind the voices of our peers with IDD to get their voices out there at an equal volume!
    - Non-profits trying to catch onto the social media are cropping up – over here at Best Buddies California we’re planning a Flash Mob to Lady Gaga’s “Born this Way” (catch the cross-over between gay and disabilities there?), and the Iamnorm.org campaign has started, among others.

    My point in this clarification is that your point is dangerous to those of us who see this from a justice perspective. There should not be rivalry between our groups of people fighting oppression. We call it “ranking oppressions” when a member of one minority gets jealous or angry of another.
    Instead, we should recognize successes of certain movements and ask for help from each other.
    For instance, I am always asking my friends where the people with IDD are at our Pride parades and make an effort to bring my local queer friends with IDD to pride parades or otherwise involve them in the movement.

    Voices against the R-word should come as much from people with IDD as from their friends, families, and allies. That’s at the heart of it why “Make it Better” made such a splash. “Voice” appeals to a fundamental cultural value in America, pulling on everyone’s heartstrings. Let’s get the voices of our loved ones out there. It should be priority #1 in any of our “programming” or “services.”

    Things we can all do:
    - Improve the websites and general visibility of People First chapters across the country
    - If you are a member of both the queer community and disability community, reach out to both and see how you can facilitate cross-involvement. Ask if you can speak about coming out at a local self-advocacy meeting.
    - If you are a special education teacher or program provider for people with disabilities, use your recreational activity time to hook your students/clients up to a self-advocacy campaign like http://www.iamnorm.org.
    - If you are an average community member, reach out to a local service provider and see if there is any way you can help include their clients in your community. Do any of their clients need a buddy to attend church with or go swimming with?
    - Always remember the inter-connectedness of our struggles. Don’t get jealous. Learn from successes, and reach out to help.

    • Hi May, many thanks for your very thoughtful, thorough and helpful reply. I agree 100% and appreciate you helping me to clarify. It was an oversight to phrase it as I did because the question was not meant to come from a place of jealousy. However, based on your response, and Stephen’s earlier response, I obviously left myself open for misinterpretation, and that’s my fault.

      I should have phrased it as more of a challenge to the IDD community that we need to, and can, be heard as much as the LGBTQ voice and we should be using that model as a guide in how to raise the volume of our voice. That is what I was eluding to in my first point of the three listed and I should have stated it more clearly.

      As I mentioned to Stephen below, we’ve worked with GLAAD in the past and worked well together. They even gave us a statement of support for our recent “Not Acceptable” PSA. (http://j.mp/pLiLyn)

      But your points are well taken and spot on. Many thanks for enhancing the post, I’ll make sure to share this as well.

      • Thanks in turn for your thoughtful response, Ryan. Perhaps instead of the word “jealousy” I should have clarified that your point sounded like but clearly was not actually ranking oppressions – because, knowing the thoughtful and tremendous work that the Special Olympics does, I know that’s not what you intended.

        Maybe, when we’re talking about activism, we need to always think about whether we’re using the active or passive voice. It sounds silly, but the grammar in which we write literally translates into how we’re thinking about our own role in the situation.

        This whole conversation points to an interesting turn that non-profits and activism are taking in this 21st-century as they struggle to integrate the organic profusion of “voices” in social media. Some post-modern social theorists must already be writing about it, while in the meantime, program managers like you and I work to figure out how to integrate social media and “social movement” in to the work of established twentieth century non-profits. It’s particularly unique to our movement of/for people with IDD, which is what makes our work exciting!

        Thanks for the stimulating thoughts during my workday,
        May Tulin
        Program Manager
        Best Buddies California, Bay Area

  9. It’s sad to say, but hatefulness, bigotry, and downright ignorance have become the mainstays of “comedy” offerings at the movies over the past few years – I’ve simply stopped going to see anything that would stoop so low.

    Personally, I’d remove the movie name hashtag from the tweets as well… in a sick fashion, the studio probably considers any mention of the movie as promotion.

    Keep fighting the good fight.

  10. Here is what i wrote on the feedbak form about the movie, The Change Up:Was it really necessary to use the word retarded and then say they baby looked Downsie? I have a son with Down syndrome and he has respectfully asked people not to use the “r”word. Jews don’t like the “k” word, blacks abohr the”n”word and and civilzed people everywhere condemn them all.

  11. Excellent post and perspective, Ryan. I’d read about this last week, it’s absolutely vile. I am going to go raise some awareness and hell about it.

  12. While I completely agree with the main point of your post, this bit:
    “replace the word “gay” with “retarded” and I dare you to find one part that doesn’t transcend. Then keep asking yourself, “Why is the outcry for one injustice heard so much louder than another?”
    … smacks of oppression olympics. I know that’s not your intent, but that may be the effect, none-the-less. So, everyone, try not to hate on the lgbt folks for making a bigger public splash. We can—and should—all work together towards *everyone’s* anti-discrimination/-bigotry goals!

    • Totally agree Stephen, apologies if it came across in such a manner. We’ve worked with the GLAAD folks on a few occasions and they are terrific. What I was hoping would come across was a reflection on society as a whole willing to hear and act upon one message more than another, when in fact they are all the same message – respect all human dignity and all human rights equally. Appreciate you giving me the chance to clarify and thanks for your support.

  13. I am appalled by this and shared the story on FB. In light of the recent murder of a special-needs child (story on Huffpost), it is time for people to realize using language like this is not only insulting and demeaning, but dangerous. It is not fostering sorely-needed understanding of the disabled, who have much to offer and much to teach society, and paints them as sub-human or defective. It may seem like a simple joke to some, but the implications are far-reaching and irresponsible. I have seriously lost all respect for Jason Bateman, and what little I may have had for Reynolds is completely gone now.

  14. If you start a tweet with @____ only your followers who follow both you and that person will see it in their stream – you need to put another word or symbol in front of those tweets to get a real impact – like this:

    . @UniversalPics thinks bigotry is acceptable. I think they are wrong. Help me remove the #Rword from #TheChangeUp. http://j.mp/oEIPKP

    Just want to be sure the tweets aren’t getting lost and are making a difference!

  15. I tried to comment on the Facebook pages of both Universal and the movie and was unable to get through. I sent emails to the people listed as well as Anderson Cooper. Let me know how else I can help.

    • Thanks Mary. Unfortunately Universal removed the ability for “fans” of their pages to comment on the walls. Appreciate the support!

  16. Has anyone asked Ellen or Anderson to help us fight this? Which high profile people are most likely to understand our why this is such a problem and help?

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