Unintended and intended insults mar a message

The photo that broke a mother’s heart (click for original story).

Two messages crossed my screen this week involving insults to the disabled community. One appears unintentional, but still caused a flap. The other appears intentional, and should have caused a bigger flap.

First, the unintentional one. It may not look all that bad in the above photo to those who either don’t have a disabled child, or those who don’t remember the emotional cauldron of elementary school–wanting to fit in, wanting to be included, daily shifting cliques and in-groups and out-groups.

A news story explained mother Anne Belanger’s reaction this way:

In the photo, the students and teacher line up neatly in three rows. But one student is missing from the group.

There, in the far right edge, her son Miles Ambridge sits in his wheelchair, separated from the rest of his classmates by an empty space on a bench. Despite the obvious gap, the seven-year-old beams for the camera, craning as far to the side as his tiny body will allow to be closer to his friends.

While she can hardly stand to look at the photo, Belanger is overcome with anger and sadness when she does.

“Look at the angle that he was in,” said the New Westminster mom, her voice a whisper as she fought back tears. “He’s ostracized. He wants to be part of the gang so much.”

It appeared at first that the photography company tried to cover up the issue, and failed to see a problem despite the school’s principal supporting the parents’ dissatisfaction. Eventually, the company agreed to retake the photograph with Miles included in the group. It took a few days, though.

According to the article, Belanger concluded, “Kids can be cruel but this comes from adults, which is even worse. Adults should know better.”

(Update: the retaken photograph is out on the web now. You can see an updated news story and the photograph here.)

Yes, they should. But sometimes, adults can be incredibly stupid, as evidenced by Bill Maher’s recent attack on Sarah Palin via making fun of her special needs son.

In a rant reportedly recorded for the Huffington Post, Maher allegedly said, “While we were off, Sarah Palin agreed to do commentary at Fox News. Which is actually very similar to her day job–talking to a baby with Down Syndrome.”

I used to like Bill Maher, but in recent years he seems to have more and more confused meanness with humor. When comedians gets laughs via meanness, we may actually laugh along with them, but most of us with any character leave feeling a little soiled.

Speakers would do well to avoid such humor–there are plenty of opportunity for experiential humor or self-effacing humor that is funny and unlikely to offend. This isn’t about being politically correct, but rather recognizing that an offended audience tends to tune a speaker out. Anything that interferes with getting your message across should be avoided.

What about you? Have you accidentally or intentionally insulted an individual or a group and regretted it?

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Author: Donn King

Donn King works with people who want to forge top-notch speaking skills to increase their influence and impact so they can advance their career or business. He is associate professor of communication studies at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, as well as a speaker and writer. His background includes ministry, newspaper, radio, small magazines and other publications, as well as co-authoring a textbook and blogging.