Heard any jokes lately about crippled or obese people? The punch lines are out there and they draw a laugh from the ignorant. Cruel stuff, especially for those at the receiving end.
A struggling Stettler teen, whose heart stopped beating after a horrific two-vehicle crash, has been teased by school students who make light of her injuries — including having one leg.
And last week in Toronto, a hushed crowd at a public seminar on obesity listened to horrible encounters of humiliation and bias. The testimonials came from overweight people struggling to live with their condition.
Joking about a person’s physical features corners them at their weakest moments, making them vulnerable to low self-esteem, depression, isolation, a feeling of worthlessness and — worse — urges of suicide.
Instead, they should be reminded they are an asset to society, not a liability.
Stettler’s Jennifer Ham, now 16, suffered severe “head-to-toe” injuries in the Aug. 4, 2008, crash: a broken pelvis, collapsed lung and left leg amputated above the knee. Paramedics at the accident scene had to revive her. She uses crutches at times.
“I wanted to die,” Ham said in a victim’s impact statement in Red Deer Court of Queen’s Bench last week. “I can’t do all the things a teenager does, like walking around town with my friends because I can’t keep up with them.”
The crash also left her physically scarred and a target for teasing.
“Kids are mean and cruel at school and public places,” she said. “Nothing about my life is the same. I hate the way I look. I just want to be normal.” And she “can’t get a job because no one thinks I can” (do the work).
At the Toronto gathering on obesity, participant David Dolomont, 1.72 metres (five-foot-eight) and 150 kg (330 pounds) talked about his life as a paramedic over the last 20 years. Dolomont said that once during a potluck supper, one of his managers joked about “standing guard” over a pot of chili.
“I saw you coming and I thought I better protect our lunch or we’re all going to go hungry,” the manager chided.
The gathering was the inaugural Canadian Summit on Weight Bias and Discrimination, co-hosted by the Canadian Obesity Network and PREVENT (Promoting Relationships and Eliminating Violence Network).
Experts said it’s critical to confront and work towards ending what some view as one of the last acceptable forms of discrimination.
“There is a widespread societal perception that people who are obese because it’s their fault, that they’re not trying hard enough to lose weight, that they’re lazy or lacking in willpower or discipline,” said keynote speaker Rebecca Puhl of Yale University.
Weight bias is a prevalent problem and reduces quality of life, said Puhl, director of research and weight stigma initiatives at the Rudd Centre for Food Policy and Obesity.
She said obese job applicants with identical resumes and qualifications to thinner counterparts are less likely to be hired; obese women earn about six per cent less than thinner women for the same duties performed; and obese men earn three per cent less.
Dr. Arya Sharma, scientific director of the Canadian Obesity network, said that until jokes about obese people are recognized as intolerant and cruel, “we are not going to solve the problem.”
The same applies to Tracy Ham, although she is suffering indignities for other reasons.
Her mother is hurting as well. “The hardest thing in life is to watch a child suffer and struggle,” said Ham’s mother, Kelly Ann, a victim in the same crash. “It kills me inside to watch my child suffer.”
Ridicule should never be acceptable in human relations. Without acceptance and inclusion, we run the risk of denying people the opportunity to enjoy life and reach their potential. No one has the right to do that.
Rick Zemanek is an Advocate editor.