Disability Finally Mentioned in Presidential Campaign
When I heard Donald Trump came out with a new book called Crippled America, I was really excited. Subtitled “How to Make America Great Again,” I thought perhaps Trump would lay out his plans to harness the Rehabilitation Services Administration and match people with disabilities to fantastic jobs. Or, maybe he would detail how his Department of Health and Human Services would require that Medicaid fund community-based attendant care. Boy, oh boy, that would really be great for a cripple like me!
I was a bit taken aback by such bold use of the word “cripple,” but Trump is abrasive himself, so I shrugged it off (along with my hopes that one of the presidential candidates would actually devote a tome to disability policy). One of the most energizing features about Trump is his rejection of the politically correct. As the American public people have become emboldened, feeling free to plant their feet rather than tiptoe around the politically sacred, they can discuss what they stand for and have honest debate about historically controversial topics. Without Trump, for example, immigration would probably not be a predominate campaign topic.
I am surprised that Trump’s allegedly mockery of New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski has become another hot topic this news cycle. Kovaleski has arthogryposis, and co-authored a 2001 Washington Post article referencing celebrants after the September 11 terrorist attacks. However, Trump was criticized for saying he saw people celebrating. When media accused him of being anti-Muslim and lying, he pointed to the Kovaleski article. Kovaleski, apparently, claimed he didn’t remember the article. Trump was relaying information to a crowd in South Carolina, when he began flailing his arms and using a funny voice. This, reporters said, was a mockery of Kovaleski’s disability.
First, I’m not convinced that Trump actually was making fun of Kovaleski for being disabled. None of my friends with arthogryposis flail or speak in a funny voice; I doubt Kovaleski does, either. It could be that Trump was trying to make fun of Times reporters generally. Coming from the Midwest, I think those New Yorkers do speak in funny voices.
Assuming the worst in people is a miserable for both parties. If I believe that Trump hates people with disabilities, that makes me sad. I don’t want to be hated for something I have no control over; that I can do nothing about it renders me angry. In effect, I become that stereotypical bitter cripple. At the same time, if Trump genuinely wants to improve conditions for people with disabilities, he loses potential allies. He might get angry that people get so offended over a mistake. Just as disability is human, so too is the capacity to err.
Trump has gone on to say, “People that have a difficulty, I cherish them. These are incredible people, and I just want to put that to rest.” I believe him. Trump has met with several Make-a-Wish children, and has donated large sums to charity.
However, I don’t believe that Trump should put the issue to rest just yet. Instead, Trump should instead engage people with disabilities. While being cherished is nice, so too are civil rights and policies that promote self-direction. If Trump actually met with a group of disability activists and asked his team to co-develop a disability rights platform for his campaign, he could really turn this gaff into a beneficial moment. It would be another coup in his pocket.
Second, I think the disability community needs to get off its high horse – er, put down its seat elevator. For years, people with disabilities have been fighting to be treated just like anyone else. Trump is, on occasion, mean to other people. He was nasty to Carly Fiorina. I still remember the outrageous insults exchanged between him and Rosie O’Donnell. I suggest offended members of the disability community take a page out of Ms. Fiorina’s book and gracefully move on.
One of my favorite TV characters of all time is Joe, the paraplegic, from Family Guy. Seth McFarlane was merciless. When Peter sees Joe moving into the neighborhood, he exclaims, “Holy crip! It’s a crapple!” In another episode, a play on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Oompa Loompa-like characters wheel Joe away, to the glue factory, because the factory is inaccessible. I loved Family Guy because it was as unsympathetic to people with disabilities as everyone else. Maybe we should appreciate that Trump doesn’t feel the need to treat those with disabilities as “special.”
Third, no one has yet pointed out that the media is happy to mention disability when it can be used to the advantage of the liberal cause (i.e., knocking down the Republican frontrunner), but not otherwise (except, of course, for the occasional inspiration porn story). If reporters truly cared about the circumstances in which many people with disabilities find themselves, they would ask questions about what candidates propose to do to improve the situation. To date, the media has not given a voice to disability issues, either during the debates or in candidate profiles.
Again, I hope both Trump and the media (as well as the other candidates) will use the opportunity before them to really dig into disability issues and start a discussion. I, for one, will have much to contribute!
Contact: Emily Munson