Monday, May 9, 2016

Why does this New York Times piece lead with slurs?

By Louise Kinross

This “news analysis” story in The New York Times yesterday got under my skin.

The headline Giving A Name, And Dignity, To A Disability is at odds with the lead, which stands as the first paragraph:

“IDIOT. Imbecile. Cretin. Feebleminded. Moron. Retarded.”

The piece is about the language used to describe people with intellectual disability, suggesting that each of these names was at one time considered benign: “Offensive now, but once quite acceptable,” columnist Dan Barry writes.


According to whom?

I’m quite sure the folks with intellectual disability weren’t asked at the time.

Would a similar analysis piece about another marginalized group—women, transgender people, aboriginals or other racialized communities—kick off with an unadorned list of slurs?

No. I don't think it would. I think that kind of opening would raise a red flag for writer and editor alike.

Barry writes that the name we assign to a marginalized group “speaks to a continuing sense of otherness; to perceptions of what is normal, and what is not.”

In setting this article up with such dehumanizing words, he feeds in to rigid, visceral stereotypes.

He traces the history of the medical term: that "idiots" must have been caused by human sin; that the "feebleminded" were immoral and "a threat to American stock." No matter what word was used, it became pejorative, he writes, as a way of positioning people with intellectual disability as less than human, "other."

Finally, after comments from historical and medical experts, he notes that disabled people themselves have fought back against the r-word in recent decades.

And there’s a lovely anecdote about a real person's life tucked away at the very bottom.

Barry writes about his investigation into an Iowa turkey plant that kept dozens of men with intellectual disability in servitude for decades—forcing them to rise at 3 a.m. to gut turkeys for $65 a month. The 2014 piece—which Barry has since turned into a book—is filled with the humanity of the men. That's why the framing of this new piece gave me such a jolt. It didn't sound like Barry.

At the end of the new article, Barry tells the story of one of the men he reported on since he was freed.

“Today he is the sole resident of an apartment in Arkansas,” he writes. “He is a commuter, a palette-jack operator, a pet owner, a Dr Pepper drinker, a brother, an uncle. He is many things, he says, ‘but I am not retarded.’”

Why is this first-person vignette, which gives us more than a one-dimensional view of intellectual disability, buried at the end? Did an editor flip it that way?

That anecdote could have opened readers' minds to a more flexible way of thinking about human value. Instead, readers who only skim the first few paragraphs of the article won't even see it.

Don't forget that only a few years ago it was editorial practice at The New York Times to describe people with intellectual disability as “retarded.” 

In fact, in 2013, Phil Corbett, then associate managing editor of Standards, in a back and forth correspondence with me, wrote: “While ‘imbecile,’ ‘moron’ and ‘idiot’ were all used in the past to refer to people with intellectual disabilities, I don’t think most modern readers or speakers of English make any such connection today.”


Isn't that what continues to give the words their zing?