Inauguration, Idealism, and Realism

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Andrew Pulrang

We have a new President. And with him comes a new administration with a new set of goals and high expectations, from those who voted in November for a change of direction, and from those who didn’t, too. For some, it’s a time of anxious hope. For others, confused frustration. For the disability community, it’s hard to know just how to feel, what to hope for, or how high to aim.

Over the past 30 or so years, the main battleground of American politics has shifted a bit, from the traditional arguments between liberals and conservatives, towards an intensifying clash between idealism and realism – between ambitious dreams and realistic goals. We see this in the disability community too, particularly in disability activism.

As we welcome a new day in politics, and maybe in disability policy, my take is that both idealism and realism are important. We can’t sustainably champion one without the other. Dreams without workable goals can easily become empty gestures. Incremental goals without clear direction can easily go astray without us even knowing it. The trick is to find a workable balance. How might this look in the disability community?

Let’s start by acknowledging our dreams, what we feel and know would be best for the disability community. Here are three that come up a lot in disability circles:

  • Finally establish universal, no-charge health insurance for everyone, very much including people with disabilities. This would mean that people with disabilities…and everyone else really…would finally be able to stop worrying about paying for their individual health care.
  • Abolish nursing homes and other congregate care facilities. This has never before seemed like such a good idea, as the COVID-19 pandemic has decimated congregate care residents. But the disability community has known for decades that these warehouses aren’t the answer to elderly and disabled people’s everyday care needs.
  • Raise Social Security benefits and do away with earnings and savings caps. Make these vital benefits truly provide a decent living to disabled people, and allow us to work when we can work, save when we can, and marry without having to worry about upending our fragile finances.

Few of us would deny that doing these things would make disabled people’s lives a lot better. They are goals worth pursuing, and goals worthy of our best arguments and highest commitment. But without a willingness to temper our efforts with a dose of realism, our idealism can easily curdle. We risk making personally satisfying, uncompromising moral stances, without necessarily achieving any meaningful progress. We keep trying to win the big argument, while less comprehensive but helpful initiatives die of confusion and neglect.

On the other hand, it’s easy to become so enamored of compromise and some mythical “bipartisanship” that we forget where we actually want to go. We lose ourselves in the weeds of policy horse-trading and forget what we are fighting for. We celebrate any old “win,” without asking if we’ve truly accomplished anything.

So while we keep our eyes on our best goals, the disability community should also try to think ahead to the kinds of “half measures” and “compromises” that we can really live with, that might actually make disabled people’s lives better. For example, it’s worth considering whether even in the current polarized political climate, we might really be able to achieve some changes that are worth the effort, like:

  • Expand the Affordable Care Act to include Medicaid expansion in all the states, and offer a more affordable public health insurance option for people to buy health insurance, including people with disabilities who still don’t have access to it.
  • Increase funding for home care, and for other direct services to help people get out of nursing facilities and other congregate care, or avoid going into them in the first place.
  • Adjust savings and earnings rules so Social Security recipients can work, earn, and save a bit more if they are able, and so they can marry without losing benefits.

Partial, incremental change isn’t as satisfying as outright victory. Even the big changes we still celebrate, like the Americans with Disabilities Act, are usually compromised and imperfect. They leave some people out, and leave some problems only partially solved. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth doing, working towards, and being proud of. The key is to be open to compromise and imperfect progress, while never losing sight of our highest goals.

As America moves forward through the fog, the disability community has a unique opportunity to do the same. Even if we don’t reach our ultimate goals, we can at least make sure we head in the right direction.


Andrew Pulrang spent many years working at the North Country Center for Independence in Plattsburgh, NY, most recently as the Executive Director. He is a co-coordinator with disability activists Alice Wong and Gregg Beratan of the Twitter hashtag, #CripTheVote, focused on discussing the participation and leadership of disabled people in voting, politics, and disability policy.

Published on January 20, 2021