President Obama’s quick apology for his gaffe likening his bowling skills to the “Special Olympics or something” on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show was well-timed and well-directed. Shortly after his appearance on the program, the President called Special Olympics Chairman Timothy Shriver, who described the President’s apology as “sincere and heartfelt.”
In his response, Shriver offered a challenge:
This is a teachable moment for our country. We are asking young people, parents and leaders from all walks of life to engage in conversation and help dispel negative caricatures about people with intellectual disabilities. We believe that it’s only through open conversation and dialogue about how stereotypes can cause pain that we can begin to work together to create communities of acceptance and inclusion for all
Shriver also urged the white house to hire a Special Olympics athlete and he called on “policy leaders at all levels to commit to improving the support and resources for people with intellectual disabilities in areas such as healthcare, education, housing and recreation.” This may be why Republican leaders have thus far not made too much of the President’s remark, since they have rarely supported adequate funding to help people with intellectual and physical disabilities. President Obama, on the other hand, has a robust agenda to expand assistance to people with disabilities.
People with disabilities, together with their families, are one of the largest constituencies in the electorate. It is estimated that approximately 20 million Americans with disabilities voted in the November election. Factoring in their families, a rough guestimate of 50 million voters significantly affected by disability policies would not be far out of line.
The ‘teachable moment’ for Obama offers a good lesson — the need for heightened sensitivity to the struggles of people with disabilities and their families. Also, be careful on the late night talk shows, where the format encourages loose jabber, as well as an opportunity to humanize or ‘warm up’ political leaders.