What Jeremy Lin has to do with Down syndrome (and a few other things to think about)

Jeremy Lin has overturned assumptions about the ability of Asian Americans to play basketball. So has David Andrews, a teenager with Down syndrome who contributed (with a 40% 3-point throw percentage) to his team’s district championship this year. To see him in action, click here.
And while we’re at it, a few other articles I read this past week that might be of interest:
David Brooks writes about the rise of Americans living alone in “The Talent Society,” and his words have particular implications for people with disabilities (though Brooks doesn’t mention them). He writes:
It’s more accurate to say that we have gone from a society that protected people from their frailties to a society that allows people to maximize their talents.

Over all, we’ve made life richer for the people who have the social capital to create their own worlds. We’ve also made it harder for the people who don’t — especially poorer children.

These trends are not going to reverse themselves. So maybe it’s time to acknowledge a core reality: People with skills can really thrive in this tenuous, networked society. People without those advantages would probably be better off if we could build new versions of the settled, stable and thick arrangements we’ve left behind.

So let’s start building those settled, stable, thick arrangements. I have to imagine we’ll all be better off.
Finally, is it okay to use the “r-word” to portray realistic speech in movies? One blogger thinks not, and she writes about it in The Hypocrisy of the 2012 Oscars. My sister Brooks, who alerted me to this post, wrote:
I struggle with the arguments made for movies that are trying to be “realistic” and therefor use the r word because it’s commonplace in these times. I follow the argument but I’m still against it. I can easily argue that it shouldn’t be used in comedies for comedic value putting someone down, but I don’t have a good solid argument against those arguing it’s use for realisms sake…
What do you think? Can/should writers and actors use the r-word for the sake of realism?
My Questions About the Ethics of Embryo Selection
Why Does Our Culture Celebrate Down Syndrome?
Politics, Down Syndrome, and What I’m Reading
Thank you Patheos! (And Continuing the Conversation at Christianity Today)
About Amy Julia Becker

Amy Julia Becker writes and speaks about family, faith, disability, and culture. A graduate of Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary, she is the author of Penelope Ayers: A Memoir, A Good and Perfect Gift (Bethany House), and Why I Am Both Spiritual and Religious (Patheos Press).


  1. What an insightful blog. Thank you! Also thank you for pointing to David Brooks quotes!

  2. It’s hard for some older people to change from this older word. I cringe when I hear it used so loosely. I sometimes struggle with the correct word to use. Downs Syndrome, physically challenged? What exactly is the correct word to use?

  3. Shirley, Could you clarify–do you mean what is the correct word instead of the r-word? Some options would be intellectually disabled or cognitive disability. I do think language is difficult and important, but attitude is even more important. It sounds as though you have a good and loving attitude, which will help to guide your language.

  4. Amy- thank you for sharing our post about the R-word. The purpose of The R-Word Reporter is to provide information and education. It is to alert people who may have a family member, friend or who may even themselves be considered by some to be “retarded” as to the use of that word in pop culture. I think Tim Shriver puts it best when he petitioned Stephen Colbert and others to not use the R-word and said, “You’re allowed to be humiliating, degrading and hurtful. I’m allowed to petition you to at least recognize what you say and be aware of the option you have to stop.” Art reflects life. Life reflects art. Unfortunately, the R-word is a colloquialism and its original medical use such as “mentally retarded” is not really how it is used in pop culture. In the movies it is used in, it is used to refer to someone as being disabled, stupid or not intelligent. It is used to mock individuals who have a disability. In my opinion, like the “n” word (used as a cruel description of African Americans) or like the “f” word (used as a cruel description of homosexuals), the r-word is now used to be harmful. The R-Word Reporter is not meant to boycott or prescribe to directors/writers/producers what they should create, but it is intended to raise awareness and to educate consumers who are deeply offended by the use of the word. We are working on a list of movies, books, songs and shows that all use the r-word to provide individuals with the option to not listen/watch such things if they are also offended by it. Thank you again. Jennifer

  5. I’m going to back up a little and say that I think people get too hung up on the pejorative meaning of a word and then it can only have that meaning. I don’t think that the “r-word” is necessarily cruel and is, instead, a way for people to have a one-word encapsulation of describing a person when they may not know the exact nature of their condition. Sometimes that’s the best one can do. If we get all tongue-tied trying to be inoffensive, are we really serving a greater purpose? And if I hear one kid say to another, “what are you, cognitively disabled?” is that somehow preferable? It’s the intent, not the word, that gives it the offensive connotation.

  6. Jennifer, Thank you for the work you do to draw attention to this issue. I share many of your concerns and I’ve written about the use of this word in a variety of contexts, including Tropic Thunder, before: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thinplaces/2010/03/movies-and-the-r-word/

  7. Ellen, I’m going to push back a bit. When the r-word is used as a joke or a slur, what positive purpose can it hold? Similarly, what positive purpose could a joke or a slur using the words “cognitively disabled” hold? Yes, I want to see our culture move away from accepting the r-word as a basis for jokes. But that’s because, more broadly, I want our culture to see people with intellectual disabilities as people who deserve respect, not because I want jokes and slurs to become more politically correct. I’ve written about this in a different way here: http://amyjuliabecker.blogspot.com/2010/03/our-daughter-penny-and-word-retarded.html and here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thinplaces/2010/05/if-i-accidentally-say-the-word-retarded/

  8. I guess I didn’t explain my reasoning very well, as I think we’re really saying similar things. It’s never ok to deride someone because of who they are or the way they were born, no matter how “correct” the term used is. That’s what I was trying to say. But sometimes in our quest to purge the negative we take things to an illogical extreme and give words more power or significance than they deserve.

    After reading the post you reference I certainly have a better understanding of what you meant, and the hurtful nature of comments that people throw out too casually. Years ago a woman I met who was an advocate for the disabled told me why the term “handicapped” was not very acceptable, and I’ve tried to use it as infrequently as possible. When we try to be sensitive and responsible, vocabulary can become a minefield.

    I enjoy your writing and the hope that flows from it! thanks.

  9. Ellen, thanks for your gracious response! Sorry that we misunderstood each other! Thanks for your explanation and for your sensitivity.