Texas’ Gov. Abbott: A Disability Advocate’s Worst Nightmare

Posted by Tim Gilmer in Life After Paralysis on November 23, 2021 # Lifestyle

CapitolThe best-known wheelchair user in the nation, Governor Greg Abbott, seems intent upon attacking the civil rights of people with disabilities. As editor of New Mobility from 2000 to 2018, I have had a close-up view of the widespread, growing frustration and anger felt by disability advocates in Texas and across the nation, many of whom have spinal cord injuries similar to Abbott’s, myself included.

As attorney general of Texas, Abbott routinely opposed numerous lawsuits that were based on the Americans with Disabilities Act. Even so, he was seen by some disability advocates as a fiercely conservative thinker whose success was worthy of celebration. His image alone seemed proof of his having broken away from the limits of discrimination that have hampered disabled citizens from fully participating in our national culture. We had hopes that he might eventually advance the ADA, at least in his state, and strengthen its status as a ground-breaking civil rights law. Much of its foundational language had derived from the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. Instead, it became clear that Abbott was hell-bent on kicking the law out of Texas. As attorney general, he has opposed lawsuits brought by people with disabilities several times, citing state sovereign immunity from federal law (and the Americans with Disabilities Act) over and over again (https://www.dallasnews.com/news/politics/2014/02/16/greg-abbott-pushes-to-block-disabled-texans-lawsuits-against-state/).

His most recent behavior as governor proves his priorities have remained unchanged. In the last few months, he has succeeded in passing a restrictive voting rights law (S.B. 1) that brought numerous lawsuits from civil rights and disability groups that cited violations of the ADA and the Voting Rights Act, among other laws. On Nov. 4, a lawsuit brought by the Department of Justice based on the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act served notice that Abbott’s disregard for the rights of those with disabilities — indeed our single most important civil right — will not be tolerated (https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/justice-department-files-lawsuit-against-state-texas-protect-voting-rights).

Then came his ban on the federal mask mandate for public schools. Once again, Abbott flagrantly challenged federal authority, this time putting at risk the safety of children with disabilities, many of whom are immune-compromised and more likely to contract Covid. On Nov. 10, a federal judge declared the ban on the federal mask mandate endangered the lives of children with disabilities (https://www.npr.org/2021/11/10/1054583020/judge-blocks-texas-mask-mandate-ban-in-schools).

Even though Abbott has consistently and fiercely attacked the ADA in the name of states’ rights, his true motivation may go much deeper than judicial conservatism. He prides himself on his personal image that began with claims of his having a “spine of steel” — the tough Texan defending his territory against all intruders. That characterization began with Abbott himself promoting the image in his initial run for governor in 2014, when he told a crowd of supporters, referring to many politicians’ promises that they will fight for their constituents, “Well, I really do have a steel spine that I use to fight for you and your families every single day” (https://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/no-one-pushes-greg-abbott-around-msna279221). He was referencing the stainless steel rods on either side of his spine that were implanted during a spinal fusion operation as part of a common procedure for those of us with paralysis from spinal cord injury.

While autonomy and state’s rights have always been semi-sacred in Texas, it is time Texans, and ultimately the national electorate, stop thinking about the governor’s spine and start asking about his priorities.

Specifically, how does he justify his behavior with regard to the rights and lives of people with disabilities? The voting process for wheelchair users has always been difficult in Texas, where the right to accessible services has never been a given, but Abbott’s restrictive voting rights law (S.B.1), if allowed to go into effect, will make voting even more difficult, especially for quadriplegics and others who must depend on attendants for help in voting (https://newmobility.com/disability-voting-rights-restrictions/). As for Abbott’s ban on mask mandates in schools, parents do have the option of keeping their children at home, but doing so would negate a different civil right protected by federal law — the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973, section 504 — which guarantees disabled children equal opportunity (the same as non-disabled children) in education (https://dredf.org/legal-advocacy/laws/section-504-of-the-rehabilitation-act-of-1973/).

Are these actions, which are clearly not in the best interests of people with disabilities, motivated by states’ rights? Or are they more about his political ambition?

Abbott’s behavior on the national stage stands in stark contrast to other well-known wheelchair users. Christopher Reeve, whose cervical spinal cord injury was as bad as it gets, took on the added burden of dedicating his life to advocating for research for a cure for paralysis. With help from his wife Dana, the Reeve Foundation later added a program supporting the all-important advancement of quality of life grants for those who would never see a cure in their lifetime.

Reeve wasn’t the first person with a disability to lobby for enhanced care and rights for wheelchair users (which began with World War II disabled veterans and United Spinal Association — originally known as Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association) — but the Reeve Foundation eventually sponsored a bill (the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Act) that has been critically important to the lives of both adults and children with paralysis.

In 2002, Craig H. Neilsen, a successful entrepreneur who became quadriplegic from a vehicle accident in 1985, founded the Neilsen Foundation, which distributes millions of dollars in grants and college scholarships for people with spinal cord injuries each year. Countless lesser-known SCI survivors have started up foundations to help fund research and advance quality of life for others like themselves. And the most famous wheelchair user of all, FDR, founded the first rehabilitation facility in 1927 for treating paralysis of polio survivors, setting a high bar for the establishment of rehabilitation medicine up to this day.

Gov. Abbott is running for re-election in 2022 and is rumored to have his eye on the presidential primary in 2024. He is an unabashed supporter and follower of the former President's political agenda to declare voting fraud where no proof exists. When the day comes for him to retire, what will his spine-like-steel political career look like then? What will his legacy be? At this point in his career, he seems content to be remembered as a tough politician. Will his consistent opposition to the rights of people with disabilities continue? Will it be remembered by the public? By history?

Gov. Abbott may be a wonderful family man and friend to many. But to those of us who struggle every day to obtain equal rights and the full range of opportunity that most Americans take for granted, he seems strangely at odds, so much so that to many, he is now considered an enemy.

Disability advocates — with support from our justice system and the public — must stand strongly against Gov. Abbott’s self-serving policies whenever and wherever they surface, in Texas, other states, or God help us, throughout our nation.

Tim Gilmer graduated from UCLA in the late-1960’s, added an M.A. from the Southern Oregon University in 1977, taught writing classes in Portland for 12 years, then embarked on a writing career. After becoming an Oregon Literary Fellow, he went on to join New Mobility magazine in 2000 and edited the magazine for 18 years. He has published upwards of 100 articles, 200 columns, occasional movie reviews and essays. He and Sam, his wife and companion of 47 years, also own and operate an organic farm south of Portland, where they live with their daughter and son-in-law, four grandsons, and a resident barn owl. An excerpt from a memoir about his early post-SCI years, as part of a compendium of his writing over the past 30 years, can be read at his website — All You Need

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.