The Classic TV Preservation Society is honored to have Vince Staskel - an advocate for the disabled in the media - on our Board of Directors. Wwe wanted to hear Vince's thoughts with regard to Jennifer Aniston and her recent and unfortunate employment of the "R" word, which is a reference to a deragatory term that is directed at those with any form of physical or mental disability.
HJP: Vince - before we address Jennifer Aniston and the R-Word, please tell us a little bit about who you are and your background.
VS: I was born with Cerebral Palsy and grew up in the '50s and '60s with very little, if any building accessibility. My college years in the '70s were mostly spent working on disability issues and trying to broaden the then faint glimmer of awareness of persons-with-disabilities. I studied the Civil Rights Movement and plugged in our rights as American Citizens. A perfect example was being taxed for local public transportation that I could not use. Maybe my black brothers and sisters had to sit in the back of the bus but at least they could get on the bus! In college I wanted to major in Broadcasting and Theatre but wheelchair inaccessibility dictated what career I had to choose. And both physical and attitudinal inaccessibility prevented me from getting the job I wanted. This was not an equal playing field and it had to change. I eventually went onto a thirty year career as a disability advocate and consultant working with all groups and segments of the community.
HJP: Ok - what is the issue core of the recent controversy surrounding Jennifer Aniston's insenstive remarks and the "R"-Word?
VS: I am fortunate to now be working in the entertainment industry advocating for performers-with-disabilities and media inclusion. I'm particularly aware that our industry is so insensitive to using words and situations that demean persons-with-disabilities. Where as the demeaning of any other minority would be met with outrage by the audience and industry itself. If we can not thread on the dignity of those persons then why can with thread on the dignity of disabled persons. It again is not an equal playing field.
HJP: Why do you think Jennifer Aniston, in particular, felt it was completely acceptable for her to use such a deragatory term? What is it, do you think, about her background and upbringing that lead her to believe that such wordage is "ok" to employ?
VS: Because she is oblivious to the hurtful intent meant by the R-word. As I stated above, being retarded or spastic or a fumbling blind person or loud deaf person is still seen as comedic. It is not funny to those who have to live their lives with the quite patronizing to mean spirited interactions by the public everyday. In my opinion, Jennifer Aniston lives in a sheltered world of admiration and privilege. She does not see or isn’t told by “her people” that the R-word is hurtful. Now of course the PC Police will alert her to not using the N-word, C-word, S-word etc. but not an iota of understanding of the R-word.
HJP: Why do you think the use of the "R"-word has become so acceptable in society today?
VS: It's like the last bastion of bad taste for the comedy word. "Come on it's just comedy" they will tell you. No it is not comedy. Just like the smiling, jiving black person or lazy, conniving Hispanic person is no longer comedy. That equal playing field again.
HJP: Do you think that mainstream usage of the "R-Word" will cease after this incident, or be altered in some way - for better or for worse?
VS: Yes it will change because it is in the process of changing now. Others have been called on their hurtful remarks using the R-word but it doesn't seem to last. There is no real out-cry against using it because as I said, it's just comedy. And even though the disability community is worth billions in advertising revenue we are still perceived as the helpless, dependent, needy segment in society that won't and shouldn't make a fuss. Well that to is changing. The new frontier of total media inclusion is right around the corner. It is now our screen time. Like other minorities the more you see us the more understanding and acceptance there is for us. Our status will rise. The disabled community will finally be important in society at every level.
HJP: What about the mainstream perception of those with disabilities? How do you believe those with disabilities are percieved in today's world?
VS: Again. I see that perception of the helpless that need to be taken care of. Our lives are presented as either over-the-top pitiful or over-the-top inspirational. Neither is the correct perception. We want to be presented in real-life situations the way it really is. Disabled people live, work, celebrate, and hurt just like every-one-else. There is no mystique about it.
HJP: How much of an effect do you believe the media's presentation, be it positive or negative, has on those with disbilities - and the perception of those with disabilities?
VS: The media can and will have a major impact on the perception of persons-with-disabilities. As you so poignantly state in LIFE STORY-THE BOOK OF LIFE GOES ON, the producers and writers on the show wanted to portray the character with Downs Syndrome as a regular high-school teenager just like every other teenager. The show was way ahead of it’s time in using a positive disability theme along with casting Chris Burke an actor with a real disability. Contrast that today with the television series GLEE or the motion picture THE MUSIC WITHIN. Here it seems the producers and writers went out of their way to cast non-disabled actors to play disabled. Where's Michael Braverman (creator of "Life Goes On") when you need him? HA!
HJP: If you ever met Jennifer Aniston, what would you relay to her with regard to this recent "R"-Word debacle? What would you say to her that would try to help her understand just how hurtful, discompassionate and insensitive her remarks have been?
VS: Well after I caught my breathe, I would tell her that many of my friends and former clients know exactly what that hurtful word means and how it affects them. I have been told by those folks how much it hurts them and hampers them in their lives of striving to be like every-one-else. Many of these same folks have careers, families, and independence. The use of hurtful, demeaning words sets back their progress and focuses a negative, unfair spotlight on them. Further, I would say that as "the nation's sweetheart" she could go a very long way in helping change that negative perception into a more positive and accurate portrayal of their lives.
HJP: What are your closing thoughts on this very sensitive matter of the "R"-Word?
VS: My first positive role model on television was Chris Burke in LIFE GOES ON. The show influenced my desire to perform because Chris was doing it. I was named National Poster Child of UCP back in 1955 when I met and appeared with Bob Hope in Washington, DC. That occasion was my first inspiration to work in show business. Becoming telephone buddies with Joey Bishop and working on the development of WITH-TV cemented my love for the industry. And now knowing Herbie J Pilato and working with the Classic TV Preservation Society brings me full circle in my quest to make the media arts more inclusive for all. We are not any "__ -Word" we are ourselves performing and living to the best of our "ability." We cast aside negativity and strive to have it eliminated in our lives. I can’t wait until society catches up! STOP THE R-WORD.