Dear Demetri Martin,
I want to start by thanking you for performing at Case Western Reserve University. You told so many hilarious jokes and undoubtedly made the night special for many people in attendance. However I feel it would be irresponsible to not address a joke you made at the expense of a man with intellectual disabilities.
To summarize the joke for those who weren’t in attendance, you recalled the occasion when you performed at a comedy club and were heckled repeatedly by an unruly man. You called him out by asking, and I quote, “Are you retarded?” The punch line of the joke was that the man did, in fact, have an intellectual disability.
It was instantly clear that your joke was not well received by the audience, and you even apologized near the end of your set. I appreciate the apology, but I think the incident should still be addressed.
I am not writing this letter to shame you, nor am I writing to sully your career. Instead, I am hoping that this incident can lead to some a productive dialogue, both for you and for anyone reading this letter who may not understand why this joke was unacceptable.
The “R-word” originated as a clinical diagnosis for people with different intellectual abilities; it soon morphed into a pejorative slur. Among the various challenges people with intellectual disabilities face every day—difficulty finding employment, lack of affordable housing, a health-care system that often doesn’t meet their needs—they must also deal with frequent bullying, name-calling and a general lack of respect for their disabilities.
Intellectual disabilities most likely affect someone you know. The President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities estimates that almost eight million Americans have an intellectual disability of some sort—that’s one person in every 10 families.
More than just a statistic, people with intellectual disabilities are people, too. In 2012, conservative firebrand Ann Coulter used the “R-word” to describe President Obama. Special Olympian John Franklin Stephens responded by saying, “You assumed people would understand and accept that being linked to someone like me is an insult… No one overcomes more than we do and still loves life so much.”
I believe these words are paramount to learning from this situation as well.
On top of apologizing, I encourage you to take the pledge to eliminate derogatory language by visiting www.r-word.org. Volunteer with a local Special Olympics organization. (We have one at CWRU.) Finally, use your position of privilege to educate your audience, not further perpetuate demeaning stereotypes.
Thank you for reading my letter.