In his May 3rd Opinion piece entitled “Trump has a dangerous disability” in The Washington Post, columnist George Will writes, “It is urgent for Americans to think and speak clearly about President Trump’s inability to do either. This seems to be not a mere disinclination but a disability. It is not merely the result of intellectual sloth but of an untrained mind bereft of information and married to stratospheric self-confidence.” Will’s argument and rhetoric struck a seemingly bipartisan and straightforward chord as the piece was widely reposted by conservative and liberals alike—“Trump disabled,” began The Hill’s headline, while The Free Republic, a conservative forum, as well as Black in America, reposted the content; another site summarized, “George Will: Trump has a ‘disability,’ is ‘uniquely unfit.’”
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.