President Obama’s gaffe on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno last night warrants media attention, but not outright fury. The term Special Olympics is most often used (and agreed, unfortunately) among able-bodied people when they are discussing — or more specifically, dissing — their own athletic performance. In its most optimistic form, the term Special Olympics represents a group of athletes who all share in winning medals, notwithstanding perhaps lower scores or slower speeds. In its most negative form, the term Special Olympics is antithetical to athletic. That is not what President Obama meant. And that’s what prompted him to immediately call Tim Shriver, head of Special Olympics, and apologize, as well as invite Special Olympics athletes to the White House for a bowling game. In my opinion, the term Special Olympics is analogous to saying “this nightclub is ghetto” or “that dude is so white bread.” It’s a language shortcut — slang — that provides an association with a stereotype. President Obama, in his first ever nighttime talk show appearance, was discussing his own bowling skills. He was understandably nervous and trying to impress his audience using slang. As the Special Olympics prepares for a new public awareness campaign to end the use of the r-word and its slang cousins, let’s help them by putting this gaffe to bed.
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