On making fun of disabled people

There’s been a lot of noise around the recent Family Guy episode involving a Down syndrome character making a reference to former Alaska governor Sarah Palin. For context, here’s the clip:

One of Sarah Palin’s responses includes an alleged quote from her daughter Bristol posted to Facebook. Besides totally mis-using the phrase “begs the question,” Sarah asks: “when is enough, enough?”

I’m not really concerned that a show mocked or satirized a public figure; that kind of treatment comes with the territory. What I find oddly strange is the reaction of Sarah’s, that it’s inappropriate to make fun of people with Down syndrome.

People spend a lot of effort and energy trying to suggest that people with disabilities can live “normal” lives. However, part of being normal is being made fun of for our shortcomings, whatever they happen to be. While disabled people obviously need certain adjustments made in order to accomodate them, suggesting that their disabilities are “out of bounds” or off-limits denies them that particular aspect of normalcy which they otherwise could have had.

As a person, I can sympathize that Sarah may be hurt that the Family Guy show chose to target her. As a parent, I can sympathize that her child was indirectly involved in the process and I would want to protect my child. But, the content of the episode itself does not actually make fun of her son Trig, nor of Down syndrome itself. The character in the episode with Down syndrome named Ellen, played by Andrea Fay Friedman who has Down syndrome herself, is actually cast as a very independent and assertive woman, who just happens to have Down syndrome. She’s about as “normal” as the rest of the zany, defective characters that are part of the Family Guy show.

See, she’s being treated just like everyone else, and as I wrote earlier, that’s the best thing you can do for a person with a disability: besides making the necessary accomodations required by their disability, treat them like the people they are instead of insisting on preferential treatment that perpetuates their outsider status.

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