If you’re media-aware of disability issues, you don’t have to wait long before someone in the entertainment industry says or does something incredibly stupid about persons with disabilities, in the service of a cheap laugh. There are way too many of us who have done that in the past, and when it’s done in front of a camera or an open microphone, it can be cringe-inducing.
But even to those of us who’ve been doing this for a while, this story was unusually vile. Enough so that a moment of reflection is probably in order.
Three radio hosts at 790 The Zone in Atlanta, Steak Shapiro, Chris Dimino and Nick Cellini (I think they deserve to be named here), did a skit on their show that made fun of former New Orleans Saints safety Steve Gleason, who is currently fighting amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. They impersonated Gleason’s AAC voice output device, which Gleason operates using eye-gaze technology, and joked about such laugh-riot topics as how much he wishes he could still play, how he didn’t know how much longer he had to live, and his desire for someone to smother him and end his life.
And really, that’s it. I feel like there should be more to describe here, some kind of subtlety that might be misinterpreted or a microphone accidentally left open, but no. That’s what happened. It wasn’t just intentional, it was written and produced and put out there, and at no point did anyone involved say something along the lines of “Guys, this is maybe the worst thing I’ve ever heard. Let’s not do this.” It really was that straightforward.
I’m glad to say that the station acted pretty quickly and decisively. Rick Mack, 790 The Zone Sr. VP & General Manager, issued a statement:
“We deeply regret the offensive programming that aired this morning on ‘Mayhem In The AM’ on 790 The Zone, related to former New Orleans Saints player Steve Gleason and his battle with ALS. We suspended the three individuals involved immediately following their comments and have since terminated their employment. 790 The Zone, our owners, sponsors and partners in no way endorse or support this kind of content. We sincerely apologize to Mr. Gleason, his family and all those touched by ALS.”
Some might say this is a non-story, simply because it was handled swiftly and decisively by the station. Maybe that’s true. In the short term, I’m not sure what the take-away is here. The brief version of this story might just be “Some idiots said something horrible on the radio in a deeply misguided attempt to score some cheap laughs, a lot of people were very understandably outraged, and the idiots lost their jobs.” The end.
I’m not sure about the long term, though. Why did these guys, professional broadcasters all, think it might have been okay to do this bit in the first place? How many people listened to it and thought it was funny? (I’m thinking not many; in addition to everything else, it was wildly unfunny.) What if it HAD been funny? Would the reaction be different, or at least more complicated? Would that change how awful it was?
I get the appeal of inappropriate humor; it hasn’t been that long since I regularly and publicly engaged in an embarrassing amount of it myself, something for which I will always be both apologetic and penitent. But this was so far over the line of what I would imagine anyone could possibly think was either funny or appropriate. And I’m not even talking about appropriate for radio or whatever. I mean appropriate for being able to sleep at night instead of just laying there in bed, eyes wide open, repeating “I am a terrible person…” over and over, like a mantra.
When I write about the importance of true and authentic relationships with people with disabilities, this is part of that. Humor like this isn’t funny unless you can dehumanize your target. There’s no question about whether you’ll get away with it if you understand that the vast majority of people who might hear you will believe down to their core that a human being with as much worth and value as themselves has been treated unfairly. In a world where that humanity is not just acknowledged but truly and deeply felt, this kind of behavior will be relegated to the fringe of society. It’s the kind of thing that should feel toxic, radioactive. It shouldn’t take thought in order to recoil from it.
I have a goal. It’s a personal goal, and at the same time it’s a goal for us all. I’d like to reach the point in my own development as a human being where something like this is simply unthinkable, where it feels like such an affront to basic human decency that it simply would never happen, not in mainstream media, and not in the conversations we have in our workplaces or even our homes. I’d like for our personal standards of what it means to be a person to evolve to the point that something like this feels bitter in the mouth of every citizen. Every one.
I have a lot of work to do in order to get there. A tremendous amount of work. And I guess I’m not alone.
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