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While harmful stereotypes and representations in the media of some oppressed groups have diminished over the years, disparaging portrayals of people with developmental disabilities remain constant. (Photo: United States Interagency Council on Homelessness)

The Hilarity of Developmental Disability

David Nibert

It is disheartening that, 20 years after the 1994 film Dumb and Dumber, not only has a sequel been released but the new film also has earned largely favorable reviews. While harmful stereotypes and representations in the media of some oppressed groups have diminished over the years, disparaging portrayals of people with developmental disabilities remain constant. The release of Dumb and Dumber To, just in time for families to take in during the holiday season, unfortunately provides another opportunity for the public to laugh at the antics of the “dimwitted” and “dumb.” Such depictions of people with developmental disabilities in the United States have deep cultural, political and economic roots and are linked to tragic consequences.

In the early 20th century, in the face of widespread challenges to social injustice and enormous disparities in the distribution of wealth and income, elites in the U.S. sought refuge in, and promoted, the theory of Social Darwinism. This pseudoscientific perspective blamed social problems and poverty on the alleged biological inferiority and “low mental caliber” of those in poverty, most of whom who were working long hours at below subsistence wages.

This damaging idea was reflected in immigration law that excluded from the country “idiots, imbeciles and feeble-minded persons” and led to the institutionalization and forced sterilization of people alleged to be “slow.” One of the surest ways of insulting others increasingly was to suggest that they were “stupid,” and the lexicon of words to defame such a person is vast: dummy, nitwit, half-wit, lamebrain, pea brain, blockhead, bonehead, retard, idiot, and on and on.

Such prejudice and discrimination were widely promoted as mass media and film developed. For the entertainment of viewers, characters frequently were called “idiots” “morons” and “imbeciles” – all formerly “scientific” and legal classifications for levels of developmental disability. Audiences laughed at the Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, Step ‘n Fetchit, and other comedians who made careers out of playing characters who had developmental disabilities. Such disparaging portrayals continued throughout the 20th century, as evidenced for example by the Conners’ caricatures of defective “hillbillies” on Roseanne, while on Friends the character of Joey often was mocked for his lack of intellect. On an episode of Sienfield, a shot of novocaine left Kramer with a contorted face and slurred speech; the running gag featured his treatment by strangers who took him for a person with a development disability. Cheap laughs achieved by calling someone an “idiot,” a “moron” or “stupid” continue to the present and are used in such popular television programs as Two and a Half Men, How I Met Your Mother, Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory – and such defamation to get laughs is the whole point of Dumb and Dumber To.

The consequences for people who actually have developmental disabilities of this long-practiced cultural denigration have been profound. Equating developmental disability with denigration and insult stigmatizes and disgraces people with such disabilities. Their resulting social and cultural devaluation has contributed to their physical and social isolation and rendered them vulnerable to abuse, violence and neglect. Their savage abuse in state institutions throughout much of the 20th century was documented in such works as Albert Deutsch’s 1948 book The Shame of the States and in a 1985 U.S. Senate Report. Senator Lowell Weicker, who chaired related Senate hearings on the rampant abuse and violence against citizens with developmental disabilities, stated that “severe acts of violence, including beatings of residents by staff and others, exist as an open secret of institutional life.”

Over time, many people with developmental disabilities were moved out of state institutions in the nationwide trend towards deinstitutionalization, creating hope for them and their families for better conditions. However, journalist investigations – from the state of Washington to Ohio to New York – have revealed that in the 21st century the neglect and abuse in large, state-operated facilities was simply replaced by similar treatment in smaller, community-based facilities. The cultural devaluation of people with developmental disabilities is reflected in the continued, tacit acceptance of violence and neglect in public and private group homes, as well as the minimal wages and inadequate training given to understaffed, overextended direct care providers. It is also reflected in the facts that people with developmental disabilities are at far greater risk of violence and assault and that students with developmental disabilities are far more likely to experience bullying and harassment than others.

The trend to promote diversity and inclusion has promoted acceptance and opportunities for many people. But for those with developmental disabilities, real progress is impeded by the devaluation of the “slow of mind” that continues to be mined for cheap laughs by film and television writers. Perhaps progress in this area is elusive, in part, because the continued devaluation of developmental disability stills serves a political economic purpose in a society where enormous disparities in the distribution of wealth remain. More than once, I have heard a disgruntled person pronounce, “I may be poor, but I’m not stupid.”

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

David Nibert

David Nibert, former community activist and tenants’ rights organizer, is Professor of Sociology at Wittenberg University.

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