For your holiday pleasures, here is a rambly blog post from a few years ago that Jeff wrote about semiotics and disability. Enjoy!
I was sitting at home last night watching television when an old episode of South Park came on called “Up the Down Steroid” (s08e03). As I sat snickering at the immature (but brilliant) jokes I found myself becoming extremely uncomfortable with how the creators had chosen to represent individuals with intellectual disabilities in this particular episode. As I gradually became more and more upset with the flagrant use of the word “retard,” a moment of sheer transcendental brilliance occurred in a scene that I believe completely encapsulates the disability rights movement.
Without delving too deeply into the plot line of the episode, Timmy (my favourite supporting characters who happens to use an electric wheelchair) discovers that his friend Jimmy has been using steroids to gain an edge in the upcoming Special Olympics competition. Disturbed by Jimmy’s outbursts of rage, Timmy approaches Jimmy and begs him to stop taking the pills but Jimmy feels that the issue is not up for discussion. As a result, Timmy decides to report to the school’s guidance councilor with the hopes of getting Jimmy the help he needs, but, there is one problem; the only thing Timmy can say is his own name. The scene proceeds to depict Timmy attempting to tell Mr. Macky (the councilor) that Jimmy is taking steroids through the use of limited hand gestures and varying tones of the words “Timmy” and “Jimmy.”
While this leads to some cheap laughs at the expense of Timmy’s speech impediment, I believe there is an even deeper connotative meaning that can be decoded from this situation. In this scene, Timmy is physically prevented from communicating with a nondisabled individual; however, his disabled friend, Jimmy, is able to understand him perfectly. What I find so incredible about the Timmy character is that he perfectly represents the traditional interaction of the disabled with the nondisabled public. While we are all individuals, with different personalities and abilities, many nondisabled individuals seem to only hear us speaking the gibberish of a young child, treating us accordingly by raising their voice, speaking slowly, and avoiding any big words or subjects of consequence. I feel that what the creators of this series are really trying to do with the Timmy character is not to satirize a boy with a disabled, but rather, poke fun at the traditional perceptions of what our society constructs to be the ‘disabled child’.
Unfortunately, I fear this is a fairly accurate portrayal of the mainstream perception of the disabled, whether it is an overt or subliminal understanding. It is for this reason that advocates of the disabled and disabled activists must band together to encourage people to stop trying to see people with disabilities, but rather, to simply listen.