For those of you missing the China posts, I miss China, too! I wrote a poem about it:
It is a spring morning in central Jersey.
And yet, when I emerge from my car in the parking garage, construction whirling in the distance, I am distinctly reminded whereby the crispness of this air, the particular squeakiness of these birds, and the unmistakable mix of blacktop and freshness of the same season in a city in South China.
Said city holds no particular place in the Chinese imaginary when it comes to urban notables; in fact, it conjures adjectives like “backwards” and “primitive” from the mouths of cabbies across China. But five years removed from my life there and cobbled sidewalks encased from endless traffic by massive palm fronds, I wonder if quaint is an adjective that one can put toward a city of seven million for which I am undeniably, yet foolishly homesick.
I recall how dodging the passersby dotting the sidewalk, I would sprint on a morning such as this, down to South Lake, and feel it my quiet oasis. In China, I learned the comfort of never being alone.
Despite the traffic that roared across the highway carving the lake in two and the never desolate state of the footbridge, pretending to climb but nay drudge up it in the dank humidity was my respite, my triumph.
Alongside the elderly people swatting their arms and strolling the banks or the young men in track suits with more ambition than athleticism, I felt deliciously inconspicuous, enfolded in the lush, yet urban landscape.
When I long for China, I like to think it’s not merely as a vagrant or a tourist but as an adherent and an old friend.
You see in China, I learned the distinct pleasure of anonymity alongside the crowded comfort of never being alone. There’s something pleasurable in recollecting that those runs along South Lake were never quite my own but belong dutifully and contentedly to the city they call Nanning.
However, as a scholar of disability and a parent of a child with disabilities, these headlines and their rhetoric sounded all the alarm bells. Surely a unified public that holds our erratic and impulsive president accountable to for his actions is to be welcomed–but not at the expense of the dignity of people with disabilities in America. Indeed, what is hardly subtle, but seemingly unnoticeable to readers of headlines like these and their content is the blatant criminalization and marginalization of people with disabilities in them. For instance, just try replacing “disability” in Will’s headline with any other identity, ethnicity, race, or sexual orientation, and suddenly Trump’s main reason to be feared—his presumed disability—reveals a startling prejudice toward difference in America.
Even if Will is onto something here in observing Trump’s inabilities, I suggest that he has inadvertently used disability as a vehicle to make the dangerous even more insidious, corrupt, and devoid of rehabilitation by appealing to some seemingly innate, suspiciously subhuman defect. Such rhetoric imperceptibly recycles previous tropes in the media that cast people with mental illness as unusually aggressive and pin gun violence on their disproportionate crimes—stereotypes that do not hold up statistically and are vestiges of longstanding cultural prejudices toward people who are “mad” or “insane.” The headline that highlights Will’s own words, “George Will: Trump has a ‘disability,’ is ‘uniquely unfit’” goes beyond these associations to imply that people with disabilities are somehow unfit to serve in office by virtue of their mental, physical, or emotional differences. The problem with Will’s tactic here and with rampant allegations that Trump has a disability are that they do nothing to cross this divide between able-bodied and disabled citizens, decry inaccurate stereotypes or effect genuine understanding. Rather disability remains but a vehicle and a scapegoat for our fears about Donald Trump or more disturbingly, a scapegoat for our fears about humanity.
Yet, perhaps the greatest issue with Will’s column is that by criminalizing people with disabilities, he not only perpetuates their stigma, but also draws attention away from the very discrimination that Trump himself, his cabinet, and his commitment to repealing the Affordable Care Act have reinforced against people with disabilities in America today. Who can forget the moment Trump cruelly mocked a reporter with cerebral palsy during his campaign, only to claim that it never actually happened? In her hearing, Trump’s Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos failed to acknowledge the national purview of the IDEA, a piece of legislation that protects and guarantees education for students with disabilities; his Attorney General Jeff Sessions has also made derisive and deriding comments about children with disabilities. Finally, the GOP American Health Care Act that President Trump and Republicans just cheered as it passed through the House levels $880 billion dollars in cuts to Medicaid over the next ten years that would deprive people of disabilities, namely my daughter, from important medical, educational, and accessibility services. While George Will decries Trump’s dangerous disability and readers clamor to dangerously speculate themselves, these are the real yet hidden dangers of a Trump presidency for people with disabilities.
Meanwhile a month ago before the original version of the AHCA Bill was set to come before the House, I received a call from my Republican Congressman, Leonard Lance (NJ-7). When we hit connection issues, our call dropping nearly four or five times, he called me back again and again. When he finally got me, he took over fifteen minutes to get to know me as a pastor, a professor and especially a mother, taking a keen interest in my daughter who is thriving through a Managed Long-Term Special Services program (MLTSS) afforded to her through Medicaid. He told me one of the main reasons he was voting against the bill was to protect that program, as well as protect people on the Medicaid expansion. He understands and made clear that poor people and people with disabilities are the very people that should not be denied healthcare, no matter the changes Republicans or Democrats want to make. Last week, he kept his word and voted against the House Bill that passed; he didn’t vote with his party—he voted with people like my daughter and me.
I certainly agree with Will and his readers that real life bipartisan unity, the likes of which is offered by Lance’s vote and his positions on people with disabilities, is even more critical in the face of the House passage of the abhorrent AHCA, Trump’s most recent egregious firing of FBI Director James Comey, and the lack concern he shows for rule of law or the cares of his constituents. But if the biggest divides in this country remain not partisan but based upon fear of disability and its inhumanity, then we are in much more dire straits that I thought. I know far too well that when people ridicule Medicaid, they don’t think about kids like my daughter. When they see her, they often look past her, and to many, she may be a strain on taxpayers dollars, a basket full of preexisting conditions. But as a Democratic Congressman, Joe Kennedy (MA-4) so eloquently put it, “among the most basic human truths” is this unifying vulnerability of the human condition.
If we are to move forward, we must have the conviction to confront Trump’s ignorance, prejudice, and bigotry on the basis of this shared humanity, not on the backs of people with disabilities. We must make it clear that Trump is uniquely dangerous–but more precisely because of the way he has continually undermined the very humanity of people with disabilities.
“No parent wants their child to be different,” she said passionately yet nonchalantly, looking innocently into the camera in this week’s premiere episode of a new season of the reality tv show, Little People, Big World. She was talking about the possibility that their baby would be born with dwarfism, while meanwhile her husband, a little person, shifted uncomfortably in his chair, trying to parse the divide, forgive her somehow for saying that his very difference, one she presumably accepted and loved, was so naturally undesired, bad–something to be feared.
I don’t mean to pick on her specifically.
I think many of us bristle at the presentation of disease and disability as unwanted variations and aberrations in nature’s otherwise rather painstaking track record for miracles, successes, and beauty. But what if I told you there were all sorts of dormant mutations in your own genetic material? What if I told you that nature “makes mistakes” all the time and it’s just that some of these variations are visible while others are less so? What if I told you that Lucia, my own daughter, was the result of one of those presumed “mistakes,” so rare, so different, yet so deeply loved and wanted? Might that change your mindset that difference is always something to be naturally avoided or eschewed at all costs?
Underneath the reality tv star’s seemingly innocent words ran a subtle, yet deep vein of privilege and conceit. Anyone who cared would prevent difference if they could, she presumed. But different to whom, I wondered. Black kids are born into a pretty inhospitable world, but it’s not their blackness that’s a problem but the normative white culture that devalues their lives. Gay and transgender kids aren’t really all that different than any other kids and yet their difference is targeted as an assault on heteronormative culture that reproduces itself through fear and exclusion. As long as difference remains the much feared, undesirable cultural alternative to healthy and white and straight and male, we desecrate the true variety and value of human life that God has made because we play God ourselves–even if it is ever so subtly with our wishing away of certain babies like mine.
And yet, this world, this country specifically, is becoming extremely inhospitable toward my daughter month by month. As a parent of a child with special needs, I want to live in a country that accepts and loves and cherishes children who are different– not with asterisks or snide comments or fearful glances or knowing pity or minimal health care or scant education–but full stop. Don’t tell me how expensive my child’s medical expenses are or how arduous her special education is, how different her needs are from a typical child, how wildly incompatible they are with this cutthroat ability-obssessed culture we live in, because I really do know. I know this isn’t easy because I’m living it alongside her.
But I made peace with Lucia’s challenges years ago; we’ve gone on living this incredibly full life and we’ve been buoyed by our church, friends, family, and the incredible array of services NJ Medicaid provides. Our family has found refuge in a state that truly values her life, but for how long? How long will you continue to live by the conceit or the privilege that your life is somehow any different from ours? How long will you fear rather than embrace difference, support legislation that carves us off from one another by our differences, asserts hierarchy in nature when you know not what mutation, future, or controversy may come–legislation that makes health the luxury and priority of the rich?
Control over the progression of my daughter’s disease is a true illusion, but the choice to value her life and give her every chance possible–that’s firmly in your hands and mine.