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Down Syndrome, the Punch Line

 by Keith Goetzman

Tags: Keith Goetzman, arts, disability, Down syndrome, television, Family Guy, Sarah Palin,

Family Guy fanPeople with disabilities are accustomed to being made fun of, but current pop culture seems to be growing even crasser in its treatment of them. Retard is back as a noun, the short bus is always good for a knowing laugh, and now a song about a girl with Down syndrome is up for an Emmy award. The song appeared this spring on the Fox show Family Guy; these are some of the lyrics:

Now, I’ve never watched Family Guy, and I’m not going to start now (life is too short), but apparently part of the show’s cachet is its sheer offensiveness. Fine—I’ve laughed at patently offensive material on South Park and The Simpsons, knowing that someone, somewhere was probably seething with anger over the same lines. But to me this crosses the line into cruel and heartless, and in this one unprecedented instance I find myself on the same page as Sarah Palin, who called out the Down syndrome girl character as beyond the pale.

Some folks in the disability community are absolutely incensed by the song, and they’re speaking up about it. Many of them are writing to Fox Broadcasting (Family Guy, P.O. Box 900, Attn: Fox Broadcasting Publicity Dept., Beverly Hills, CA 90213-0900) and the Emmy-bestowing Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (www.emmys.tv/contact).

One disability advocate would like to take it a step further. She wrote to friends: “I would so love to get 1,000 or so people with Down syndrome standing in front of the place the Emmys are held on the night of the grand occasion [August 29], so people can look them in the eye as they file by in dressed in their designer clothes.”

Organizers and activists, the red carpet awaits.

Not all of TV-land is unenlightened. Watch actor John C. McGinley of Scrubs, whose son Max has Down syndrome, explain why we should end our use of “the r-word”:

UPDATE 8/24/10: The song “Down Syndrome Girl” will not be aired on the Emmys broadcast, according to Jerry and Judy Horton of Down Home Ranch, a Texas residence for people with disabilities. The Hortons, who had voiced strong opposition to to the song’s nomination, report in an e-mail to supporters that John Shaffner, chairman of the Emmy parent organization, sent a letter to the National Down Syndrome Congress, an advocacy organization, notifying them of the decision. See the National Down Syndrom Congresss Facebook page for reactions to Shaffner’s decision.

Image by Joe Shlabotnik, licensed under Creative Commons.