I’ve been disabled my whole life and I know what to expect. I’ve never seen myself 100 percent represented on television and film. The world is not designed with me in mind — I can’t change who I am, but I accept myself. When I started covering media, discussing disability and representation opened me up to acknowledging a lot of hard truths about my relationship to media and, in a way, helped others feel seen and understood. But never did I assume my relationship to media would slam into the political sphere and force me to confront truths I didn’t want to acknowledge.
In August 2016 then-candidate Donald Trump mocked New York Times reporter Serge F. Kovaleski. Kovaleski has a disability. Trump attempted to walk back his comments, making additional ableist errors in the process, like referring to Kovaleski as “handicapped.” When this hit the news cycle, I was inundated with friends and family members asking me what I thought about Trump’s actions.
I understood that, for many of my loved ones, they don’t have any disability experience to fall back on and I’m often asked to give my thoughts in this arena. But I don’t represent all disabled people, and for many of the people I was talking to, they were asking in such a way that felt like the were seeking me out to provide justification for their own inherent reaction. Were they justified in liking or disliking Trump on the basis of my response?
In the subsequent four years I’ve had many painful, angry, frustrated conversations with those same friends and family about my disability as channeled through the media, the government, and the upcoming election. Is Joe Biden’s disability plan good? How do I feel about people using ableism to discuss whether Trump himself is disabled or not? In being asked so often to give my opinions at large, it’s often at the expense of asking me how I’m doing as a disabled person in America. And, frankly, in response to that unasked question: I’ve spent a lot of time being upset and angry.
Disability issues are a niche category to many, but the global pandemic has been a learning experience for able-bodied people. In an article I wrote back at the start of stay-at-home orders, the pandemic and the nature of quarantine left many of us with disabilities saying “Now, you see how things have been?”
I’d hoped it would foster grander discussions about accessibility and it has, kind of. We’re still debating how VOD is going to be the great destroyer of movie theaters — and that anyone who isn’t championing movie theaters daily is a traitor to filmdom. But despite that undercurrent, there does feel like a greater awareness about the issue from people out in the world. Former Vice President Joe Biden has been very vocal about his past as a stutterer, making him one of the first candidates I can recall to acknowledge having something that passes for a disability. Mind you, I’m still torn on my thoughts considering he tends to sell it as something he overcame, but, again, it’s a start.
At the same time, this wellspring of positivity has come after four years of fear and frustration. Much of that has been bubbling for decades. America is still woefully behind when it comes to making the world disabled friendly, whether that’s in access to medical care, affordable housing, the ability to make a living wage, and finding accessible housing. These problems certainly didn’t begin and end with our most recent president, but they became harder for me to take with a smile and shrug. Watching Trump mock Kovaleski led me to have an angry discussion with my own Republican-loving father, wondering how he could find that acceptable when he saw first-hand how I was seen throughout my life.
To my dad, I am able to “rise above” my disability; I’ve made good, and therefore am not like the presumably “bad” disabled people living off SSI (Supplemental Security Income). I certainly realize my privilege as a white disabled woman, but over the last four years I’ve regularly been told that I’m not like “those” other disabled people, and I’m unclear who exactly “those” other disabled people are. Having spent decades on SSI, living under rules that have prohibited me from making significant money, getting married, and buying a house, it’s always been hard not to laugh when people assume disabled people live off the fat of the land.
I’ve been told I’m lucky that I don’t have significant problems, as if I have single-handedly fixed all the disability problems in my life. I’ve felt the encroachment of white supremacy in these interactions, many of which end with the person telling me how I should “understand better than anyone because I’m disabled.” So which is it? Have I risen above, or not? I don’t think most of the people I’ve interacted with truly know what answer they mean to imply, but the entire conversation ultimately leaves me feeling more disabled than I’ve ever been before.
On top of that, there’s the rampant discussion of ableism about Trump himself, especially in regard to his ability to walk, hold water, and generally function. There’s a disabled contingent of people who say that, despite who he is, there’s no need to rely on ableist language. I certainly understand that but it’s hard, for me, to turn the other cheek in this instant. It’s even harder to declare out loud.
After four years of mockery and anger, why must it be put on us to forgive and be better? That’s ultimately what has saddened me the most, that it is ultimately left up to me, as a disabled woman, to be better — while those who should be held accountable skate by. Again, this isn’t anything new, but thanks to the media conflagration around Trump, it feels so oppressive of late. It’s just been too much.
I can’t offer much in the way of wisdom. If you’re asking what this all means, I don’t really know. I know that the last four years — and, in particular, the last 11 months — have led me to be far more introspective about how I see myself as a disabled person and the role of disability in this country. I’ve also become far more galvanized, more so than I already am, toward discussing disabled issues. And that’s all I can do, focus on what I’m doing to bring disability to the forefront. Hopefully, the next four years will see disability take a grander focus on the world’s stage — and in a way that doesn’t induce me to tear my hair.