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The new Ben Stiller movie Tropic Thunder arrived with advance buzz about the potentially off-putting use of blackface by Robert Downey Jr. as a highly decorated method actor who undergoes experimental surgery so that he can play an African-American soldier in a Vietnam War epic. The historic legacy of minstrel shows and the use of blackface is such that, even when its use is satirical, its mere mention inspires immediate outrage, sight unseen.

Intriguingly though, the most strenuous attacks on and calls for boycotts of the film have come from disability rights groups opposed to the characterizations of people with developmental disabilities. Stiller, as co-writer of the screenplay as well as Tropic‘s director and co-star, has defended the film by arguing that the intent of the satire takes aim at Hollywood and actors, not people with disabilities.

While this might be true, filmmakers, like most of mainstream society, fail to consider that people with disabilities largely are not given the chance to speak for themselves, even to protest such characterizations in the media. We forget this history because we don’t know it or we have refused to acknowledge its dark incriminating secrets.

There was a time in this country when families with members with what we now define as developmental disabilities placed those family members into institutions assuming that the facility staff would be able to provide the care and support the families themselves were unable to for a variety of reasons. Likely, for some families and communities, there might have been a desire to hide what was considered shameful, but no one expected the mistreatment and abuses that resulted and remained a secret would haunt this country and help to taint our civil rights legacy through the present day.

Organizations across the country have emerged to support the voices of those who were silenced. Locally, Partners for Community Living — a unique partnership between Choices in Community Living, Inc. and The Resident Home Association — provides important support and services by meeting shared values and missions that could not be afforded individually by these groups.

One of Partners’ recent efforts is a new documentary, Lest We Forget, which has already screened at select film festivals around the country but will have its Cincinnati premiere Thursday at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

Lest We Forget, a film and audio project developed by Partners for Community Living, preserves the stories and voices of Ohioans with developmental disabilities, their family members and the social service professionals and advocates who have been instrumental in setting a new course for individuals, our region and society at large.

Lest We Forget: Silent Voices is a 42-minute documentary by Mark Lyons of Wright State University’s motion picture department with assistance from award-winning film producers Julia Reichert (who served as the film’s narrator) and James Klein (editing). It was produced in the Miami Valley and has been adopted by the Ohio Department of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities for inclusion in its employee training curriculum.

The audio companion, Lest We Forget: Spoken Histories, is two-CD supplement that delves even deeper into the multitude of experiences of people who have been locked away or kept hidden, but who now have emerged, ready to claim their place in the social and cultural fabric of the community.

Executive Producer and Partners State Coordinator Judy Leasure, a veteran advocate and professional in the field of mental retardation and developmental disabilities, believes that capturing these stories will help us “to know where we’ve come from in order to prepare better for the future” as “we continue the growth in service and support for people with developmental disabilities.”

The Lest We Forget project came about as a result of the initiative of several people who have worked in the field of mental retardation and developmental disabilities for many years. Some (like Leasure) had 25 or 30 years experience and had seen the process of de-institutionalization up close. But nothing can teach us better than the voices of people closer to being full participants in their own lives and the lives of their families and communities.

Thanks to efforts like this project, audiences here and across the country will not be able to forget these buried histories, which belong to us all. One day, maybe we will be as politically aware and engaged on the subject of developmental disabilities as we are the plight of other marginalized groups in society. (tt stern-enzi)