The tie that doesn’t bind

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on July 22, 2019 # Mobility, Advocacy and Policy

I wrote a blog last month where I speculated that the principal cause of the segregation of people with disabilities from the rest of American life is not as deep-seated and seemingly intractable as bias based on racial or religious or sexual orientation. It is ignorance, lack of contact, and unfamiliarity.Unlike those other social schisms, few in the modern world think of the disabled as a single, monolithic sub-culture who are collectively, ipso facto inferior or less civilized or morally corrupt or a threat to other-skinned, heterosexual people everywhere. There was no ableist backlash when wheelchair-using Greg Abbott was elected governor of Texas like the racist/birther backlash in the wake of the election of Barack Obama. If anything, the only disability-related response came from the disability community itself, chiding the staunchly right-leaning Abbott for not being disabled enough, at least in his attitude toward his own kind. Texas Democrats dislike the guy intensely, but they don’t blame the wheelchair.

My friend and colleague Candace Cable rightly pointed out in a note after that blog that the face to face familiarity route is a slow one. “Experience and familiarity will drive inclusion,” she wrote, “but alone, it’s too slow when disabled people can’t even get somewhere to be familiar.”

Very slow. But the national disability community, I think, has an equally big problem – the lack of a common identity. I came across some startling statistics the other day that underscore the political and cultural mishmash of disabled citizens here. In a wrap-up report about disability voter results from the 2016 election published in The RespectAbility Report by the very astute Lauren Applebaum, various surveys pointed to the same result: almost as many voters with disabilities voted for Donald Trump as for Hillary Clinton. In one report, Trump got 46% of the disability vote (he only got 46.2% of all votes) to Hillary’s 49%. In another, more voters with disabilities (40%) voted for Trump than voters with no connection to the disability community (35%).

I’m a little late to the party here, but I was stunned. Trump even went out of his way to mock a disabled reporter, a clip shown billions of times on television, and he still got half of the disability vote. I know I live in a liberal, elitist bubble called West Los Angeles, but 46%? I’m now starting to think the whole national disability-rights cohort – advocacy groups, publications, foundations, service organizations, etc. – lives in its own kind of bubble. There is clearly a major disconnect between half the populace with disabilities and those fighting for their rights. Major.

Which brings me back to point #1: people with disabilities in America are not a monolithic identity group, either inside looking out or outside looking in. As much as people who are trying to move the ball forward assume there is one like-minded community here, there isn’t. There may be cohesion and common purpose among various disability subgroups – the deaf community, the paralysis community, those on the autism spectrum, those with MS – but not across those groups, at least nationally. Maybe the day will come when the 35 million voting Americans with disabilities will bind together like the LGBT community and foment radical change, but that ain’t today.

I’m not the person with the resources to “drill down,” so to speak, and see who all these disabled Trump voters are or what they’re thinking. One guess is that they are part of the disgruntled, non-coastal electorate who voted for Trump out of anger or frustration (24.1% of the people of West Virginia, a big Trump state, are disabled). To them, the ADA and SSI/SSDI are just government handout programs that don’t do squat for their own economic or emotional security. I’d also guess that many think of themselves as part of a cultural and geographic community – Birmingham, Alabama, Youngstown, Ohio, East Texas – and that their shared attitudes with that community trump their shared attitudes with other Americans with disabilities. If they feel outcast and abandoned in this 21st Century world, they feel progressives are as much to blame as reactionaries.

One way or another, they are as alienated from the disability movement as Greg Abbott. It would take a major figure like Martin Luther King or a major inciting event like Stonewall and/or the AIDS crisis to create a new kind of cross-cultural unification of disabled voters. The problem is, nothing seems to cross-cultural lines in this severely fragmented America.Maybe this next election will show us a path forward. One can only hope.

Ref: “Polling Shows People With Disabilities Split Vote Between Trump and Clinton,” Appelbaum, Lauren, The RespectAbility Report, 12/14/16.

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.