Disability, the State of the Union, and PartisanshipPosted: January 30, 2014
After reading President Obama’s State of the Union address and congresswoman McMorris Rodgers’s Republican response, I’m sure of one thing—the way both used disability for their respective platforms highlighted the problematic way disabilities of all kinds get used in public narrative. Frankly, both speeches felt like the same old nonsense—ideological battle fought out in code words and innuendo with very little substance.
Both used disability as inspiration to further their respective ideologies in ways that made me deeply uncomfortable.
President Obama takes the story of Army Ranger Cory Rembsurg, a now disabled vet, and weaves it into an allegory of the American Dream. Now, I have no qualms about Remsburg and his family being incredibly proud of his service and his personal resolve in approaching rehabilitation. What makes me so uncomfortable is how his story gets presented and then used as a literary device. Regaining abilities after a disabling accident becomes synonymous with the American work ethic.
“Even now, Cory is still blind in one eye. He still struggles on his left side. But slowly, steadily, with the support of caregivers like his dad Craig, and the community around him, Cory has grown stronger. Day by day, he’s learned to speak again and stand again and walk again, and he’s working toward the day when he can serve his country again.”
This translates to me as something to the tune of “He’s not normal yet, but he’s overcome so much of his disability that he is well on his way to being a contributing member of society again.” What happens if he doesn’t see, walk, or talk like he used to, even after all that rehab? What is the implication for someone born with a disability, who might simply never walk, talk, or think in a “typical” fashion? If a disabled vet doesn’t go back to work again, does he fail to count as an inspiring success story?
“My fellow Americans — my fellow Americans, men and women like Cory remind us that America has never come easy. Our freedom, our democracy, has never been easy. Sometimes we stumble; we make mistakes; we get frustrated or discouraged.”
So now disability has become a metaphor for all that holds us back from freedom and democracy. We stumble and make mistakes on our way to freedom and democracy, yes, I wholeheartedly agree. However, is the President implying that disability itself is a stumble, a mistake? I surely hope not. I imagine that many would be surprised to learn that for many people with disabilities, the road back to normalcy is not the holy grail, in part because it is not an option and in part because normalcy in and of itself is a fallacy used to marginalize minority groups.
Furthermore, the President avails himself to Remsburg’s story despite that veterans groups have criticized him for failing to make do on earlier promises to help veterans after a catastrophic cuts to benefits.
McMorris Rodgers is no better. When I first read the snippet in which she spoke of her son and his Down syndrome diagnosis, I was pleased. While I didn’t entirely appreciate her need to point out that her son was reading above grade level as evidence of his worth, most of her words were beautiful and did resonate with me. Then, I read the rest of her speech. After that flowery bit about her son, the rest of her speech simply had nothing to do with anything relating to disability or Down syndrome.
While I know that many were very happy that someone mentioned Down syndrome in public without a derogatory slant (I admit I was initially happy as well), I am now both disappointed in McMorris Rodgers’s ableism as well as her failure to mention a single policy item that would improve the lives of people with Down syndrome. Call me greedy, but it simply wasn’t enough for me. I wonder if any readers think I’m being unreasonable because topics related to Down syndrome or intellectual disability are such minor issues to bring up on such a national stage. Well, my response is, she brought it up first. If she wants to use her story of raising her son with Down syndrome to create a message of equality, then let’s hear some actual suggestions of how equality and civil rights for people with Down syndrome, intellectual disabilities, or any disability could be furthered.
What’s more, I see McMorris Rodgers’s pairing her son’s Down syndrome with partisan politics to be quite dangerous. She emphasizes how she pulled herself up by the bootstraps to be what she is today, is she implying that simple hard work will do the same for her son? I couldn’t help but wonder whether she availed herself to Early Intervention services, which are paid by the government. Is that an instance of an individual with a disability being empowered by a smaller government? What about the fact that her son (and mine) might grow up with opportunities to work only for pennies on the dollar in sheltered workshops? No amount of hard work pays off when you earn 20 cents an hour for work that a non-disabled person gets so-called minimum wage to perform. McMorris holds up the almighty economic growth card as the answer to America’s problems, but I can’t remove from my mind CEO Peter Schiff’s recent offensive remarks that the “mentally retarded” are worth less in wages than others. McMorris Rodgers’s Republican comrades are the ones who have blocked ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Person’s with Disabilities, despite that the UN treaty was modeled based on our own Americans with Disabilities Act.
So I have to ask again, why couldn’t McMorris Rodgers do more by mentioning her son’s 47 chromosomes than simply toe her party line?
In the end, I doubt either President Obama or Representative McMorris Rodgers (or their speech writers) intended to imply any of what I just posed. And that is precisely my issue. Disability gets used in the public narrative as convenient metaphor and allegory; a vehicle with which others get from one rhetorical place to another. Even a mother’s proud and genuine story about her son gets lent out to a political agenda. No one seems to think about the hazards and pitfalls of using people with disabilities in this way. Real, infinitely complicated, unique people get flattened into a stencil that gets colored in whatever way suits the user.
I’m not a wheelchair user and don’t have a brain injury, but I do know that being led to feel inspired about a man who was overcoming his disabilities was deeply uncomfortable for me. I want Remsburg to make whatever choices will lead him happiness and fulfillment, but I don’t want to worship at an altar of normalcy. Some people don’t regain abilities after disabling accidents and we should be accepting of them just as much.
I do have a child with Down syndrome, and I will never use whether he reads below, at, or above grade level as justification of his worth or potential, nor will I use his story to tug at anyone’s heart strings to further any of my political beliefs.