Toronto District School Board Gets “Proactive” About Indigenous People

Jobs within the Toronto District School Board done by “Chiefs” will now be done by “Managers”, out of respect for Indigenous cultures.  The move was taken after considering the calls to action of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which published a report in 2015 about the Canada’s history, stretching over a century, of placing Indigenous children in residential schools.

The issue is that no one had complained. Toronto District School Board Curator of Indigenous Arts and Culture Dan Redbird says no one from the Indigenous community asked for the change, and that “Chief” isn’t a word that has anything to do with Indigenous traditions.

“It was an imposed word that the government introduced with the Indian Act back in the 1800s.” Redbird told Nick Bosvert of CBC News.  

He acknowledged that it’s come to be used as a micro-aggression, and likes that the Toronto District School Board has taken the step, but “doesn’t envision a dramatic impact from the change.”

Image Description: Young white woman wearing a white blouse and dark blazer rests her head on her laptap keyboard. Her long brown hair is in a ponytail.

Content Note: Residential Schools, Nothing for Us Without Us, Abuse, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Forced Sterilization, Retard

Toronto District School Board Wants to be “Proactive”

Here’s some more about the word “Chief” that I learned from an interview on CBC Radio One’s “As It Happens” on October 11:

  • It means “leader”
  • Its origins are Roman and Old French
  • In French, it’s “chef” (which the Toronto District School Board will not be replacing)

The changes that the Toronto District School Board plans to make affect approximately 20 job titles.

I have thoughts.

The “As It Happens” interview was with  Ryan Bird, the Toronto District School Board’s Manager of Corporate and Social Media Relations. The interview in its entirety can be heard here.

Click for a transcript, at “Toronto District School Board: No Chiefs”

I was in the car with my father as we listened to the interview, and it wasn’t long before I turned to him and said, “And here’s where my friend Geoff would say, ‘Did anyone complain about this?'”

Just as interviewer Carol Ott said, “Did you get complaints?”

Geoff and I have been around and around on the issue of people deciding for other people what *should* offend them. Often it’s been disability-related – Geoff has asked why people who aren’t disabled should decide what terminology should offend disabled people, like the word “retard”, and I’ve said, “I didn’t decide that ‘retard’ should offend intellectually disabled people – they’ve told many people themselves that it does.” More recently, it’s been about the choice to keep Washington’s football team the “Redskins” – Geoff says that Indigenous people don’t find the name offensive, and sends me media clips and articles that support his position. I have media clips and articles of my own by Indigenous people that do find it offensive. We do what we do in our debates on most things – agree to disagree.

And if an organization using “Chiefs” instead of “Managers” is offensive to some or all Indigenous people, the terminology should change. I’d absolutely support the Toronto District School Board ( or any organization) talking to the Indigenous community regarding changing anything that they see as potentially concerning , asking “Would changing this be healing?” and acting on those recommendations. But the Toronto District School Board didn’t do that, or if they did they appeared to reject the recommendations of the community, in favour of being “proactive” (Ken Bird’s word) – deciding for the Indigenous community that they *should* find the Toronto District School Board’s use of “Chiefs” offensive, and therefore worthy of addressing before people started to complain.

And they’re wondering why there’s been mixed reaction to their move that they didn’t anticipate.

“Nothing for Us Without Us”

The disability advocacy community has a saying – “Nothing for us without us”.   It reminds people that make the decisions that affect disabled people that disabled people need to be involved in the process. Policy that’s meant to help disabled people, made without consulting disabled people, could end up being useless to us.

“Nothing for us without us” kept going through my mind as I listened to this interview. The point of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and its final report was to document the ways that Canada’s government hurt Indigenous people with its insistence that it knew better than their communities how to raise their children (and the horrific abuse that went on in the residential schools) and exploring ways of “establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in this country.”

My opinion only, of course…but it’s not “proactive” or respectful to make policy based on what non-Indigenous people think should insult Indigenous people without consulting them, especially when:

  • There’s plenty of easily-accessible evidence out there to suggest that this might not be the case – in this case, commentaries on the word “chief” and its origins, as well as its relationship to Indigenous communities, by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. They all agree – it’s a word imposed on Indigenous people, not one with any significance to Indigenous people themselves.
  • There’s no indication that the issue that the policy addresses is actually an issue.
  • The “proactive” behaviour is actually an example of historically problematic behaviour – Non-Indigenous people deciding that they know what’s best for Indigenous people and going ahead and doing it, without caring what Indigenous people think about it.

Again, not “proactive” – offensive. I find it offensive, at least, and there seems to be some evidence that Indigenous people do as well. Indigenous Canadian author Robert Jago expressed his feelings on Twitter:

Are Good Intentions Always Enough?

I’m not suggesting that the Toronto District School Board didn’t have good intentions. I’m suggesting  its action was tone-deaf.

I’m not an Indigenous woman, and I won’t pretend to know what it’s like to live in an Indigenous person in Canada. But have an imagination, empathy, and as a disabled woman, membership in a group with a similar (not identical, but similar) history of forced institutionalization by the government in highly abusive environments, marginalization, and ongoing discrimination…and hearing about this action by the Toronto District School Board, the rationale behind it, and their self-congratulatory pats on the back for it, made me furious.

I’m a writer and I believe in the power of words to shape attitudes and actions. I’ve had this debate with friends as well. But reconciliation won’t happen because 20 people in a school board get a word in their title changed. You want to make an impression on the kids your schools, Toronto District School Board?  Get some Indigenous speakers in to talk about life for kids their age in reservation towns like Attawapiskat.

Let them learn about the class action suit launched earlier this month by Indigenous women, alleging that they’d been sterilized without consent in the 1990s.

Let them hear stories from the families of over 1000 missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Let them hear stories and ask questions, and find out how they can help. I guarantee that some of these kids have never thought about these issues before simply because no one’s ever talked to them about them…and that once they’re thinking, they’ll want to learn more…and get involved in the dialogue between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people about the best ways to bring about reconciliation.

Dialogue, not assumptions. Dialogue will bring about change – it won’t be as easy as changing signs on office doors and printing out new business cards for 20 employees, but it will be deeper and more effective and we’ll all be better people for it.

All That Being Said…

Perhaps there are Indigenous people on the Board at the Toronto District School Board who thought this move was a good idea, and the Board was acting on their guidance. If that’s the case, people should please let Ken Bird know that he needs to speak to this – because nothing in the nearly-eight-minute interview with “As It Happens” or in the multiple media accounts that I read suggests that the Toronto District School Board made this change with any consultation from the Indigenous community.

As always, feel free to correct me if I’m wrong about any of this.

Rest in Peace, Anthony Corona

I’ve just heard about Anthony Corona’s death in December. I have thoughts.

When I was in school to become a Developmental Services Worker, which is the certification most preferred by the Ontario government for those who work in support positions with intellectually disabled people, the curriculum didn’t include Crisis Prevention Institute’s Non-Violent Crisis Invention certification that most agencies required in staff at the time.

Content Note: Ableism, Restraint, Abuse, Neglect, PWD Death

Small, lit, white candle held in someone’s cupped hands lights the darkness. Keyword: Anthony Corona

Image Description: Small, lit, white candle held in someone’s cupped hands lights the darkness.

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The school I attended didn’t believe in the NVCI certification; its philosophy was that workers should absorb any violence directed at them by the people they supported.

I argued with my teachers about this; I didn’t think it was fair to potentially many people, depending on the circumstance. I had a rock-solid belief, supported by the NCVI philosophy, that restraint should be a last-resort measure. But I also wanted to be sure that if I found myself in a situation where a person I was supporting was agitated and at risk of hurting self, others, or me, that I had the tools to effectively de-escalate the situation, and if a restraint (or hold, as NCVI calls it) was the tool that was necessary — well, that was regrettable, because the situation ideally should been escalated before it got to that point, but if the person was so out of control that a hold was necessary then the analysis of how we got there could wait, because the safety of everyone involved was at that point the primary consideration.

Safety.

Which is partly why I was so upset to hear that after being held in restraint on his bus ride home from school last December, 18-year-old autistic youth Anthony Corona died. I didn’t hear about this when it first happened, but it’s come up again recently because the coroner found he died from positional asphyxia — he’d had his head held between his knees for twelve minutes, blocking his airway and circulation, and he died soon after the people restraining him had discovered he’d stopped breathing.

There is no excuse for this.

Corona, who was also intellectually disabled, seemed from accounts to be out of control when he was restrained — he’d thrown a half-full bottle of water at an aide and physically attacked another student. At 5’10” and 190 lbs., he was a large young man, but could have been restrained easily using a two-person NVCI hold, removed from the bus without breaking the hold, and held and periodically repositioned by employees (who could have spelled off by other employees, if necessary) outside the bus until more assistance arrived. He, the employees doing the hold, and anyone else in the area would have been safe, provided that the hold was being done properly by trained individuals.

CPI does not sanction (nor does any other system of behaviour management of which I’ve ever heard) forcing an individual’s head between their knees and holding it there for even ten seconds, let alone twelve minutes. This restraint caused his death by positional asphyxia — and the determination that autism and was a contributing factor needs to be struck from the coroner’s report. Autism is not a lethal condition, and the suggestion that behaviours exhibited by Anthony Corona (ones that the coroner has apparently linked to his autism diagnosis) contributed to his death is ableist victim-blaming.

Shame on the coroner.

I wish that I could see the police report, because several things have struck me as I’ve read media accounts of Anthony Corona’s death and events leading up to it on which I’d like clarification.

Restraint on the Bus

Anthony Corona was “harnessed” into his seat (this account also mentions that he was harnessed) for the two-hour bus trip to and back from Bright Futures Academy each day. Also, school president Becca Colucci said that students are seated on the bus based on their behaviours. Another Bright Futures Academy student on the bus told a reporter from the Press-Enterprise that staff often didn’t secure Anthony in the harness and that he knew how to slip out of it. Becca Colucci corroborated this.

Restraint should always be the last resort. Was a harness and chain (whatever role it played) truly the least restrictive option for bus transport for Anthony, given that it restricted his movement for a total of four hours a day? Was it fair not to give him the choice of with whom he wanted to sit (or at least near?) This institutional approach to transportation practically guarantees behaviour issues in people prone to them, especially given that, as the student mentioned earlier also told the Press-Enterprise reporter, staff generally could be “quite rough” with Anthony and seemed reluctant to deal with him. This points to staff-related issues around Anthony that needed to be addressed, for everyone’s safety, before we even get into what happened on the bus, particularly around putting a safety plan in place for both school and bus.

Anthony Corona’s Safety Plan

Even though Anthony was secured in his seat, if he had a propensity toward behaviour that could put himself and/or other people risk, a safety plan for that contingency should have existed so that in an acting-out episode, all staff know details like what holds are and aren’t authorized, when the bus should be stopped, what the other students should do and who should initiate that, who at the school should be called, etc. — in short, making sure everyone knows their role, has the information they need to perform that role effectively, knows from whom they’re supposed to take instruction, and what the chain of communication is. If they can’t get on board with the safety plan, they need to work somewhere else, because these plans exist for a reason: to keep *everyone* safe until the person is under control again.

Apparently a safety plan did exist. We’ll come back to that.

T here were 21 students on the bus the day that Anthony Corona died, with only 2 aides and a driver (even though there can be up to 6 aides on a bus.) Even if Anthony Corona was the only one on the bus whose behaviour the school considered a particular risk (and given that Bright Futures Academy serves “special education students referred by local school districts due to significant behavior challenges”, that’s probably not the case) two aides in this setting isn’t enough. Things must have seem stretched enough that a student felt compelled to intervene when Corona became agitated, which is absolutely inappropriate, and why there should have been enough aides on the bus to both safely de-escalate acting-out behaviour and clear the area to the greatest extent possible. If someone has become violent, other people need to be kept safe as well.

Now, the bus driver pulled over once he realized what was going on, and tried to help. However, it’s difficult to tell from media accounts what he was authorized to do. This article states that “Bright Futures staff were properly trained” before Anthony Corona’s death and subsequent restraint retraining for staff, so we’d expect that the bus driver could help out safely and effectively in this situation. However, the driver told the police that he was “unaware that Corona had a plan to control his behaviour”   Also, when the driver pushed Corona’s head between his knees, he was “trying something that his supervisor said had calmed Corona a few weeks ago”. The supervisor hadn’t reported the incident to the school.

In other words, he tried a new technique that presumably hadn’t been approved for use, with no idea of how it might interfere with what the aides were doing or how it might affect Anthony Corona (and, as a result, the people around him.) The aides let this happen despite knowing (presumably) that the technique wasn’t part of the safety plan.

For twelve minutes. This wasn’t a mistake that happened because someone made the wrong decision in a moment of panic. There was plenty of time to deliberate on whether they were doing the right thing, and they continued to use a technique that they must have known wasn’t approved.

Training

As history professor and disability activist David Perry pointed out, it wasn’t so long ago that Ethan Saylor and Eric Garner died for the same reason that Anthony Corona did —positional asphyxia. No trained person should have forgotten so soon that some restraint positions can be lethal.

When you get right down it, no trained person should figure that it’s safe to keep someone’s head pushed between their knees for twelve minutes. Shame on them and the people who “trained” them.

Shame On All of Them

The institutional practices, lack of coordination, and the assumptions both underlying and arising from both aren’t things that can just be apologized away, nor totally solved by the seat belt clips that the school bought to transport students more securely. Shame on Becca Colucci, for thinking that Bright Futures Academy’s “deepest sympathy” to the family and retraining in restraint for all bus staff are enough to address this. Apologies barely sufficed when an autistic student with epilepsy had a seizure and seriously burned his leg after allegedly being left unattended by Bright Futures Academy staff in 2015. When a vulnerable person that parents have in the care of your school dies at the hands of your staff (Colucci even told police that she didn’t believe that Anthony Corona was restrained correctly), retraining staff in restraint is only part of the answer — and the tip of the iceberg, really, because restraint should always be the last resort. Another part of it is the person in charge having the decency to resign.

And shame on the California Department of Education for not making Becca Colucci do it. Anthony Corona may have not have been someone that some aides at Bright Futures Academy wanted to deal with, but to his grandmother and aunts he was a family member.

Anthony Corona’s “crime” would have gotten a non-disabled student removed from the bus and bus privileges suspended for a period, or perhaps suspension from school depending on the severity of the fight with the other student; at the very worst, the police would have been called, but it’s unlikely that charges would have been made.

Corona, however, a young, intellectually disabled, autistic man, died.

Something to think about as we start Autism Awareness Month.

Rest in peace, Anthony Corona.

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Ontario School Board Changes Lice Policy Because Inclusion

Hello everyone! Happy New Year! Let’s talk about lice. Yes, lice – the nasty little bugs that live and lay eggs in the hair of especially schoolchildren, making costly shampoos and treatments and complicated disinfecting regimes in the house a necessity.

Content Note: Stigma, Hypocrisy, Double Standards

White woman with long blonde hair, wearing a beige sweater, examines the head of a white little girl's long, blonde hair for lice. Keyword: Lice

Image Description: White woman with long blonde hair, wearing a beige sweater, examines a white little girl’s long, blonde hair for lice.

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In my province (Ontario) most school boards have “no nits” policies that require that children on whom lice and/or nits are found stay home until they no longer have signs of lice. As a result, some children miss multiple days or even weeks of school.

Several Canadian school Boards have decided to rethink the way they deal with lice, in part due to a recent ruling by the Canadian Pediatric Society that lice are not a medical condition, but a “social nuisance”. They do not cause disease and aren’t a barrier to learning. Richard Pollack, an entomologist, told the Toronto Star that “generally speaking, one out of every 100 kids has lice, regardless of the type of policy the school has toward the insects” and that “the only real thing to fear when it comes to lice is hysterical parents running students out of school.” Read More About The New Head Lice Protocol in the Toronto Star

Mark Fisher: “Public Education is About Equity of Access for Everybody”

In Ontario, the Hastings and Prince Edward County District School Board is the latest board to move away from the “no nits” policy. According to its new policy, children with nits and lice will be welcome at school to continue their learning and so that they can avoid the stigma of being sent home because of lice. Anna Maria Tremonti of CBC Radio’s “The Current” interviewed Board Superintendent Mark Fisher on Jan 14th. The CBC doesn’t provide transcripts of their interviews that I can find, so here is one that I did of that portion of the interview:

AMT: Your school had a “no nits” policy, meaning kids with lice had to stay home. Why did you decide to drop that?

MF: Over the past couple of years I was getting a series of phone calls from parents concerned about the amount of time they were missing work and having to come up and pick their children up and not able to return to school…and we decided to take a look at our procedure, which is something that we review every few years. And when we dug into the issue a little bit we realized, ah, that the medical community said that this was a social nuisance and not a medical concern. And at the end of the day public education is about equity of access for all, and we don’t don’t believe in exclusion anymore for something that we don’t consider to be a serious issue.

AMT: You have also mentioned issues around the stigmatization of students. What’s that?

MF: Yeah, part of my portfolio was promoting positive mental health and well-being. I mean, this is an issue prevalent in  society. So think about how stigmatizing it is, for students to be identified as having head lice, sent to the office, and then having to wait for the parents to come and pick them up, and then not being able to return to school for days or weeks. So really, this is not something that promotes well-being in school, and it’s not a policy we’re comfortable with anymore.

AMT: Are you worried that they’ll be stigmatized if they stay?

MF; I think what we want to do is we want to be very culturally respectful of everybody’s needs. So, it’s not that we are allowing lice to be rampant in our schools – we still have management plans at each school, we’ll still do regular checks, and we’ll respect the rights of the individual by letting them stay for the remainder of the day, sending notification home to parents, along with resources about how to effectively treat this. And if there are some families that are unable to treat this, which has been the case in the past, we have set up mechanisms where they can access  get support, financially and  human, to resolve the issue.

AMT: And what kind of support, then? Like, you would actually pay –

MF: {muffled} counselors that could go into the home, work with the family…and if for some reason, and there are some families really struggle with resolving this issue, we have a charitable arm of our school board which they can make application for funding for some of these agencies to come in and take care of the issue for families.

AMT: You know, in a few minutes I’ll be speaking to Kristy Sinclair, one of the parents who does not want kids with lice attending school. Can you understand the fear some parents have, that their kids –

MF: Oh, I absolutely understand it. I’m a parent myself. I can understand why  parents are worried about this issue, but I think there’s a lot of misinformation out there. We did a lot of research, we checked with a lot of different health units, with the Canadian Pediatric Society…and really what we found was that there’s no evidence that “no nits” policies actually reduced the overall prevalence of nits. And in fact, Anna Maria, we have never excluded students from our high schools for this issue and we don’t have any different rate in the high school versus the elementary school, so…

AMT: Hmm. What kind of rate do you have in your schools?

MF: It’s about, just under 1%, which is I think pretty consistent with the information that we found when we looked at on a larger scale.

AMT: Okay. So what are you doing to help parents understand this decision?

MF: We definitely agree that there’s an education role for us as educators, so we really…we sent home a lot of information about a lot of the health units in our area. We’ve also talked about best practices, about how you actually treat and remove head lice…all of that information is available on our website, for anyone that wants to google “Hastings and Prince Edward County District School Board”, and we also have support staff available in those kind of really problematic cases.

AMT: Just take me through it one more time. You say you’ve done research, and the Canadian Pediatric Society says as well that it’s not a medical condition.

MF: That’s right.

AMT: And it’s not a health problem?

MF: Right. It doesn’t spread disease, it’s not infectious. The information that we have says that it’s a social nuisance.

AMT: Okay. And how much pushback are you getting?

MF: Well, I would say that we’re having a loud but vocal minority. I think, you know, change is difficult at any time, Anna Maria, and at the end of the day, public education is about equity of access for everybody. It’s a great equalizer. And you can’t have equity of outcome for our students when they graduate if you don’t provide equity of opportunity, so if our most vulnerable students aren’t allowed to come to school to learn, to participate, and to resolve the issue with support, I think that’s kind of counter to what we stand for.

Tremonti went on to interview Kristy Sinclair, creator of the “Stop the New Head Lice Protocol” Facebook group, and Richard Pollack, the entomologist that also talked to the Toronto Star. Listen to the full interview here.

The New Head Lice Protocol and Supporting Inclusion When It’s Easy

Here’s the thing.

I have some gut feelings on this on this issue that I admit are based on a very small amount of research and probably more on the idea of having lice than anything else. I think that Fisher makes some valid points. I think that Sinclair’s points about how life infestation *can* become a medical issue when children scratch to the point where they break open skin and give themselves infections, and that the cost of treating lice can over and over and the time at work lost for parents makes the policy economically punitive for families, are also valid.

And for the record, I’ve got no problem with any initiative that reduces stigma for children who get lice. I’m not sure that this policy change will do it, but I could be wrong, of course,

But the main reason that I wanted to comment on this story, and why I wanted to include a transcript of Tremonti’s interview with Mark Fisher, is that I’m fascinated by the co-opting of the language of inclusion as a reason for the policy change.

I’ve never worked in the Hastings and Prince Edward County District School Board, or any of the Boards that have moved away from the “no nits” policy in favour of the one that allows students with lice to return to school. I’d like to see how their inclusion policies for disabled children are working (acknowledging, of course, that perhaps the Hastings and Prince Edward County District School Board has an exemplary record of providing equity of access to everyone, including disabled students). Perhaps all disabled students in the Board do get to attend school and get what they need at school to allow them to learn and participate to the full extent that they can, like their peers do.

If so, congratulations to Hastings and Prince Edward County District School Board – I’m glad that this particular school board has been able to overcome all of the physical, social, and attitudinal barriers in all its its schools that prevent the full participation of disabled students, that they can now focus on making sure that non-disabled students with lice can fully participate while dealing with a (their words) non-medical issue that’s not widely understood socially.

I’m glad that inclusion for students with disabilities no longer seems to be an issue for them, that they can put all this focus on a non-medical issue that that affects one student in 100 at any given time.

I’m glad that all the challenges of families of disabled children in their school are being sufficiently met and in such an efficient way that the board, in its quest for inclusion and for making sure that all children can get an education, can provide counselors in the home and funding to help meet the needs of families of children with lice.

I’m glad that the Board feels that it’s the school’s place to work in partnership with community agencies to make sure families of children with lice are getting what they need, and that they’re willing to be part of education and awareness-spreading. I guess that they’ve got all the partnerships they need when it comes to disabled students and their needs. Good for them.

(In case it’s not coming across, I’m laying the sarcasm on fairly thick.)

Go ahead and call me a cynic, but I think we have a case of, “It’s easy for a school board to believe in  inclusion and providing “equity of access for all” when it doesn’t cost a lot them a lot of extra money.” Again, I have no idea about this particular board’s record on inclusion, and perhaps I don’t even have a right to be skeptical. But we’ve all heard stories and seen stories in action about schools subtly (and not so subtly) demonstrating that inclusion of disabled students and a commitment to equity of access when it comes to their education is *not* their policy even when it’s their policy. I’ve heard far too many stories. I don’t like that I’ve become skeptical, but there it is.

If I was the parent of a disabled child in a board replacing their “no nits” policy, I’d want some assurance that *my* child’s right to equity to access would continue to be preserved, or be preserved at least as well as, that of children with lice. There’s a lot in here that need to apply to *all* students as a general rule, on a daily basis basis – cultural respect of needs, respect for the rights of individuals, and preservation of all students’ rights to learn and participate. If you’re going to go on the radio and say that you stand for inclusion for everyone, you’d better be prepared to stand behind it.

 

 

 

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Ellen Degeneres and “Idiotest”

So I was cleaning yesterday and had my television set to “Ellen”.

I don’t watch “Ellen” very often. It’s not that I don’t like Ellen Degeneres. I actually find her quite funny. There’s just usually something on that I want to watch more when her show’s airing in my area and I happen to be watching TV, and I don’t have a DVR.

Content Note: Ableist slurs

White man in a gray suit with a white shirt and blue bow tie grins widely. He's holding holding a large white sign that says "IDIOT" in red letters. Keyword: Idiotest

Image Description: White man in a gray suit with a white shirt and blue bow tie grins widely. He’s holding holding a large white sign that says “IDIOT” in red letters.

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But yesterday I was distracted by cleaning and the show that was on at 3pm switched over to “Ellen” and I didn’t bother to change it, so there you go. But the show, a repeat from April, got my attention very quickly when Ellen started talking about how they were going to play their own version of “Idiotest” (a game show of which I’d never heard, on the Game Show Network) with the audience.

“Idiotest”…Idiot…

I don’t like the word “idiot”. It’s got an ableist history as sordid as “retard”. I try not to use it since I learned about how ableist it is, but when I do let it slip, you can bet that I’m very angry. Eliminating it from my vocabulary was difficult, because it’s very much a part of society’s vernacular, and I’d grown up using it (unlike “retard”, which was never allowed in my house). And most people don’t know that it’s ableist, so I cut them some slack when I hear it.

However, the fact that there’s a game called “Idiotest” (on prime-time and on “Ellen”) makes me feel a uncomfortable, particularly when Ellen said in her video that she was playing the game with the audience to “assure the world that there are no idiots in my audience”.  Obviously the research department hadn’t unearthed that “idiot” was originally a derogatory term for intellectually challenged people. People aren’t using it with that intent now, obviously, but even if it wasn’t her intent to send the message that intellectually challenged people weren’t welcome in her audience (and I don’t think that was the message), there was a subtle, albeit joking, message that people with low intelligence aren’t.

Calling People Idiots Just Isn’t Funny

The problem is that the joke isn’t really funny, and it becomes less funny when you know the history of the word “idiot”. There’s currently enough in the definitions of “idiot” on the first page of Google that any good researcher should have thought, “Uh oh, better look at this before we create a game around it.”

Ellen’s idea of “Idiotest” involved bringing people (presumably pre-selected) up from the audience and asking them a brain-teaser. The people who got them wrong (4 of 5) got called idiots and were made to sit on the stage wearing dunce caps.  Here’s the video:

They each got a great trip as a prize, but that’s not really the point. The whole “Idiotest” business hearkens back to a particularly ugly time in the school system that really doesn’t need revisiting. Children were asked questions through which they perhaps legitimately couldn’t think because of undiagnosed cognitive difficulties and learning disorders, and when they couldn’t get the answers they were shamed in front of the whole class and made to sit in the corner wearing dunce caps.

Seeing someone try to make that experience into something fun and funny made me feel profoundly uncomfortable.

I expected a bit more sensitivity from Ellen Degeneres.

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