One Small Gesture

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on June 20, 2016

This humble little blog is not about politics, it’s about living with paralysis and all the attendant issues surrounding that. That said, it is hard in a strange, almost surreal political year like the current one not to make some connection to disability as a national topic. The reason for this is simple: for the first time since George Bush The Elder signed the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990, disability is a real, live issue in the Presidential sweepstakes. And that’s a good thing.

Ironically, it’s one simple gesture and comment in one speech by Donald Trump that ignited the conversation. It lasted all of 4.5 seconds. You know what I’m talking about: Trump seemingly mocks a New York Times reporter with the limb disorder, arthrogryposis. Mr. Trump said he was just being enthusiastic, not mocking. Most people, I think it’s fair to say, saw it as crude and disrespectful.

However you define it, it has already become the subject of a Super PAC ad called “Grace.” You may have heard about it on NPR or NBC or the rabid Internet, but if you haven’t seen it, the spot features the Midwestern parents of a little girl with spina bifida, named Grace, and their outrage at seeing the Trump gesture. You can find the ad on YouTube and decide for yourself.

As a recent piece in The Atlantic Monthly concludes, no matter Mr. Trump’s intent and culpability, he got people talking. “Trump’s insult,” says writer David Perry, “has turned disability into a useful tool for Trump’s opponents. Inclusivity for people with disabilities is now a matter of presidential politics.”

Some disability activists have weighed in to say that the ad – featuring well-rehearsed parents pulling heartstrings with their adorable albeit disabled child – is as disingenuous as Trump’s excuse for waving his arms around. It’s patently sentimental, they say, and exploits the old Jerry Lewis trope of cute kids instead of adults with disabilities who can speak for themselves. It is breaks the cardinal rule: “Nothing about us without us.”

In any case, the disability cat is out of the bag, so to speak, and you will no doubt hear at least the words “people with disabilities” repeated more in this election than ever before. Does that mean there will be concrete solutions offered for urgent matters like the crisis of employment of people with disabilities, or the life-and-death struggle of poor people with disabilities, or the level of care for people with disabilities in institutions, or a program to help get those people out of institutions? Well, not so far. Hillary Clinton did mention something about helping people with autism early in her campaign, but that’s about it. Personally, I think the employment issue, which includes access, training, and discrimination in the work place, is the pathway to greater acceptance in every day America. Hopefully that will come up somewhere, somehow.

Maybe I’m dreaming. The Trump crowd is angry about the whole drift of the country and the Hillary crowd is angry at the politics and personality of Trump, so vicious mudslinging, name calling, and character assassination will no doubt be all we really hear for the next six months. But because of that one small, almost throw-away gesture, repeated a thousand times in a thousand ways, it’s very likely that more of the estimated 37 million people with disabilities of voting age – whose rate of voting is usually 5-10% lower than those without disabilities -- will turn out to vote. That could mean millions of additional votes cast, and maybe one small step to greater empowerment and public participation.

Will people of disabilities finally emerge as a legitimate voting bloc whose needs politicians have to address to win elections? In a year where almost every political prognostication has been wrong, your guess is as good as mine.

© 2016 Allen Rucker

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How I Woke Up One Tuesday and Was Paralyzed for Life