You won’t often find me devoting so much space on my blog to one specific issue or topic.  But the on-going furor over the film ‘Tropic Thunder” has rallied and united special needs advocacy leaders and groups as perhaps little ever has.  We must do a better job of joining our individual and group voices to promote disability rights and awareness. That’s how real change will occur for this population.  When we join our loud voices and large numbers, we’re a powerful force, serving notice that we aren’t going away.  Instead, we’re getting stronger, more united and increasingly committed.

Now is the time for us to be heard.  

As in prior posts, I again state my belief that this r-word issue not just important to those with intellectual disabilities (the focus of this movie’s blunders), but to all those living with a wide range of disability.  An assault against the dignity and human rights of one group and a specific disability, impacts us all.  

My son Eric, had a significant physical disability.  Because of the degree of  his physical needs, including wheelchair use and severe speech challenges, many people wrongly assumed he also had an intellectual disability, allowing them to dismiss him more easily. I experienced firsthand just how quickly people doubted Eric’s potential and value when armed with the limiting belief that he was both physically and cognitively challenged.  Outdated images and perceptions of this population, including those presented by the media and Hollywood, help fuel such ignorance.

Eric passed away far too soon at age 12 in 2003 and I miss him deeply.  The many tough, stinging and infuriating moments we faced due to the ignorance and lack of awareness of others helps fuel my on-going special needs work.  Eric remains my greatest teacher, complete with disability.  But nearly twenty years after my son’s birth and diagnosis, much still needs changing.

We can and must do better by our fellow humans regardless of the individual challenges or diagnosis facing them.  Only a thin line of circumstance separates any of us from joining the ranks of the 54-million Americans (plus 200 million people with Intellectual Disabilities alone worldwide) whose diverse faces represent the disability community.  I know firsthand how quickly a family can join that community, leading me to ask two key questions of others, especially those who may feel this r-word-movie-thunder-noise is much ado about nothing.  It’s not.

What would you want if it was your brother, sister, mother, father, cousin or friend who was impacted by special needs?  

How would you want to be treated if it were you facing disability?
What too many people don’t get about this film is that it’s not just harmless, box-office entertainment.  It encourages others to laugh loudly at the big expense of millions of children and adults.  As school is about to begin, (complete with real concerns about bullying), too many kids and adults may well carry the movie’s negative language and image of those with special needs back into their school hallways, communities, homes, workplaces and into daily interactions with those with disabilities.  However intended, the movie will most likely help reinforce outdated stereotypes and images while granting permission for the continued careless, casual use of the offensive term retard, especially by our young people.  Hollywood can do better, and so can we.  
What follows are the words shared by Tim Shriver, Chairman and CEO of Special Olympics, at the premiere of the film ‘Tropic Thunder” in Los Angeles on Monday, August 11, 2008.    Read them carefully, and then please act on behalf of the millions of people worldwide living with the daily challenges of special needs, including exclusion, discrimination or worse. 

Special Olympics has served an a model for my special needs advocacy and work for the past two decades. No one provides a better example on how to best serve the special needs population with passion, dignity and commitment. I’m grateful for their on-going example, worldwide impact, and much-needed voice on this important topic of discussion.

To sign the Special Olympics Pledge to end use of the R-Word, please visit:

Read on; then add your voice, too.

(B/W photos courtesy of Special Olympics/used with permission/ Top two photos: my much-loved, talented son, Eric Richard Winter).

Remarks by Tim Shriver Chairman and CEO, Special Olympics
Protest of “Tropic Thunder” Film Premiere
August 11, 2008 / Los Angeles, California

Over the last 10 days, Stacey Snider and other leaders of DreamWorks Studios have met with me and representatives of a large coalition of individuals and organizations concerned about the film “Tropic Thunder,” the subplot film “Simple Jack” and the slogans “Once upon a time there was a retard,” and “Never go full retard.”

Members of our coalition—self advocates and family members of people with intellectual disabilities have seen the movie and reported shock and disgust. Their reactions have resonated with many of us who take their cause and their voice with the utmost seriousness. I am grateful to Ms. Snider for listening to the coalition and for taking steps to eliminate some of the most offensive marketing elements of the film. I am also grateful for her commitment to working in the future for an end to denigrating speech and hurtful portrayals of people with intellectual disabilities in film and in society. 
DreamWorks and its leaders have a powerful reputation for advancing socially and politically important issues. In particular Steven Spielberg has been a generous supporter of the work of Special Olympics for which I am deeply grateful. I look forward to counting the hopes and dreams of 200 million people with intellectual disabilities among the causes of this formidable group of creative and artistic leaders.

Now however, is the time to raise our voices against “Tropic Thunder” and the harm it is sure to visit on people with intellectual disabilities. Together with the members of the international coalition, I am asking Steven Spielberg, Stacey Snider, Ben Stiller and the entire “Tropic Thunder” team to stop the film, and asking movie theaters and movie goers to shut this movie out. “Tropic Thunder” is a colossal blunder. Don’t show or see “Tropic Thunder.”

The degrading use of the word “retard” together with the broader humiliation of people with intellectual disabilities in the film goes way too far. When the R-word is bandied about and when bumbling, clueless caricatures designed to mimic the behavior of people with intellectual disabilities are on screen, they have an unmistakable outcome: they mock, directly or indirectly, people with intellectual disabilities. They perpetuate the worst stereotypes. They further exclusion and isolation. They are mean.

Mockery in any form, or for any purpose or directed at anyone, especially those least able to defend themselves, is neither funny nor acceptable. We must bring it to a stop.

When I look for leadership at a time such as this, I look to my mentor and friend, Loretta Claiborne. She is a tireless worker, a taxpaying citizen, a courageous speaker, a world class marathoner, and an invaluable role model. Most importantly, she, like all people with intellectual disabilities, has unique gifts, that deserve to be welcomed, appreciated, and celebrated.

Loretta Claiborne has been speaking in schools around the world for over 20 years, asking children to stop using the word retard as a term of mockery, recounting the painful and terrifying ways it was used against her as a child. More importantly, she has asked thousands of young people to reach out in positive ways to their peers with intellectual disabilities: join Best Buddies and be a friend; join Special Olympics Unified Sports and be a teammate, join your parents and friends and be open, welcoming, and understanding. Over and over again, she reminds her audiences “If you open yourself to people with intellectual disabilities, you will be amazed at their gifts and amazed at how much joy and happiness comes back to you.”

She and thousands of other self advocates with intellectual disabilities deserve to have their appeal heeded.

So today, we ask all people of goodwill to follow Loretta, not “Tropic Thunder.” Parents, religious leaders, educators, employers, health care leaders, political leaders, producers, actors, directors, writers, and DreamWorks leaders: join Loretta Claiborne by launching a national effort to bring injustice to an end and mockery of people with intellectual disabilities to an end. Join the world of welcome and acceptance. Join the world’s greatest movement of human dignity and joy. Come to discover the best in others and find the best in yourself.

Name calling is a subtle but malicious practice that only serves to perpetuate stigma, fear, intolerance, and more. Ban the R-word.  Ridicule is a subtle but malicious practice that only serves to exclude and marginalize people with intellectual disabilities. Stop “Tropic Thunder.”
People with intellectual disabilities can be great athletes, productive employees, positive friends, courageous role models: Let’s open our schools, doctors offices, businesses, communities, and most importantly, our hearts to the giftedness of every human being. 
No more exceptions. No more exclusion.
And if you go to “Tropic Thunder” I would ask only this: when you hear the word “retard” and when you see the scenes filled with mockery, think of Loretta Claiborne or Eddie Barbanell or John Taylor or Miguel Diaz or Billy Quick or Sophia Wesolowsky or ….Think of their mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, friends and loved ones. Think of their daily efforts to win a place for themselves in a world that is so frequently dismissive. Think of their athletic ability, their openness, their wisdom, their courage, their ups and downs, their struggles, their smiles.

When you leave the theater, think of them again. Become their fans. Follow them in building a world dignity, acceptance, and joy for all.

Tim Shriver

Chairman and CEO
Special Olympics, Inc.
1133 19th Street NW
Washington DC 20036
1-202-715-1147 – office
Breakthrough Parenting for Children with Special Needs: Raising the Bar of Expectations