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Donald Trump, Ableism, & the Disabled Vote

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Donald Trump, the name (and the hair) evokes a plethora of responses when you bring up the businessman who is now a serious contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.  Regardless of how you feel about Donald Trump, there is no escaping the controversies he starts that gets everyone’s attention and stark reactions.

The latest Donald Trump outrage has caused many to wonder what more can Donald Trump do to offend people, and still maintain the frontrunner power grip he has.  Since Donald Trump’s newest antics involved the disabled experience, I decided to write my perspective on Donald Trump’s influence, and how his remarks and actions affects one of the largest voting blocs in the country.  

Though Trump is the catalyst for the existence of this article, this post is not meant to be purely about bashing Donald Trump; it is moreso about the responsibility we have as voters to pay ardent attention to the rhetoric presidential candidates spew, and not fail to recognize the dangers of electing officials who unapologetically stereotype, ostracize, and degrade marginalized groups in our society.  

Not Donald Trump’s First Ride on the Ableism Train

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Last week at one of his campaign rallies, Donald Trump went on a tirade about how he saw thousands of Muslims celebrate the collapse of the 9/11 Twin Towers in New York.  This claim has been reportedly debunked by news reports over the years; yet it came up during Trump’s speech at the rally.  The reporter Trump felt was responsible for negating his claim is Serge Kovaleski.  Kovaleski has Arthrogryposis, a rare, congenital musculoskeletal condition that limits the movements in his arms.  

During the speech, as seen in the video footage above, Trump made a series of gross imitations to mock Kovaleski’s physical condition as a way to “reiterate” Kovaleski supposedly not remembering what he wrote in the article that Trump believes should have been retracted.  

My Reaction, & Seeing a Pattern in Trump’s Behavior to Opposition

My initial reaction – pure disgust.  

Trump’s mocking was meant to discredit and degrade the reporter.  The discrediting factor stemmed from the insinuation, through the combined jerky physical arm movements and incoherent vocalization, that there is something intellectually and physically “wrong” with the offending reporter, and that his claim should be dismissed because he is not someone of an authority to be trusted to give accurate news information to the public.  

The degrading factor came into play from the aforementioned insinuation:  a disabled person’s limitations makes them inferior to someone of Trump’s prestige and power.  Disabled people should know “their place” – that place is being non-confrontational when reporting about or interacting with someone of Trump’s caliber.  Mocking Kovaleski’s movements reduced him to a lower status; he is “different” from the majority, and his difference is not to be forgotten or ignored.  

Trump’s antics played strongly into the stereotypes society has about disabled people.  Though Trump later stated that he does not “mock folks that have problems,” the damage had been done.  The considerable amount of outrage surrounding the offensive moment has overtaken the presidential campaigning spotlight, as do most of Trump’s outlandish behaviors that seems to shock America.  

Trump’s blatant disregard for the disabled is nothing new.  Over the summer, Trump made remarks about a conservative critic who is paralyzed.  In this particular incident, Trump degrades Charles Krauthammer, who is paralyzed from the waist down, by stating that he could not believe that he was being called names by someone who could not “buy a pair of pants.”  (Krauthammer called Trump a “rodeo clown.”)  

Trump’s criticism to Krauthammer’s name-calling shows a reoccurring pattern:  Trump’s berating his critics functions as a defense mechanism.  Trump has proven time and time again with these incidences that he is not the kind of person who takes objection well, and will stoop to gross levels of verbal retaliation to defend and protect his reputation.  That kind of belittling mechanism is both toxic and dangerous, especially regarding the ways Trump has reacted to his critics with disabilities.  

Why We Cannot Afford to Dismiss Trump’s Ableist Antics

Being president is one of the most important jobs a citizen can have in this country.  No matter the background of the president, she or he represents the melting pot America is glorified of being.  Every American, regardless of race, gender, orientation, disability, religion, national origin, etc., expects two things from their president:  respect their experiences in this country; and to act on and in the best interests of everyone, not a small few.  

Donald Trump’s ableist antics creates a separation of that collective view presidents are supposed to embody.  For disabled Americans, how can we truly believe that a potential President Donald Trump would respect who we are, the unique challenges and barriers we endure, and will fulfill the expectation of improving our lives and protecting the rights we have if he has a history of belittling our existence?  

Most importantly, during his entire campaign run, Trump has managed to offend not only disabled people, but also Latinos and Muslims with his perceived racist and Islamophobic statements.  Before even becoming the official Republican presidential nominee, Trump has shunned millions of people who represent marginalized groups that battle multiple oppressions within their own plights.  Members within these groups also make up key voting blocs, as well; particularly, Latinos being the largest racial minority group, and the disabled community being the largest minority group overall.  

Though Trump is considered to be problematic by many who are offended by his actions and have questioned how he has gotten this far in the nomination race; realistically, none of us should be surprised at the lack of reprimanding or the firm support he has within the Republican party.  The GOP has a history of excluding and offending marginalized groups, including the disabled.  The GOP’s stance on disabled people and our lives will shed some light as to how the Party views the disabled American experience, and why Trump’s conduct is not a new occurrence by members within the Party.  

The GOP Does Not Like Disabled People

The subheading may be strong, but it personifies the actions and language Republican politicians have undertaken about disabled people and the lack of support towards our rights and the programs our livelihoods depend on.  

The Republican Party, over the last few years, have led a crusade, of sorts, to either dismantle or extinguish the very programs and policies both able-bodied and disabled Americans heavily rely on for our day-to-day living and/or protect the rights we are entitled to.  They have also haphazardly targeted many programs by attaching misinformation to garner misguided support from the public about members who are on the rolls of these programs.  These “scare” tactics not only implant fallacies about these such policies and programs into America’s consciousness, but also widen the “deserving” versus “undeserving” mentality regarding the protections and supports offered by these institutions.  

Threats to Social Security & Medicaid

The perfect examples to the threats to Social Security and Medicaid the Republican party has spearheaded transpired when we experienced several looming government deep spending cuts, states refusing to expand Medicaid to align with the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or commonly known as Obamacare), and the claim that there are an astronomical amount of people on the disability benefits rolls who are committing disability fraud.  

Constant Threats to Cut Social Security

Earlier this year, progressive disability advocates had to advocate to Congress about the impending devastation of the suggested deep cuts and policy restrictions to Social Security, especially to SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance).  Each fiscal year, disability beneficiaries have had to not only stress about the possibility of the Treasury Department running out of money to fund Social Security in general, but also if Congress would take misguided steps in attempting to reduce the Social Security fund deficit by making cuts to the program and/or failing to provide more support to keep the program afloat.  The majority of the restrictions and funding cuts proposed have been Republican-led and backed; with key figures within the Party being the ones to “rationalize” why they believed it would be beneficial to save a few dollars at the expense of ensuring that disabled Americans had the resources and financial means they need to survive.  

Failure of States to Expand Medicaid

When it comes to Medicaid expansion, many of the states that have refused to expand the program are Republican-governed.  For example, my home state, South Carolina, is one of those states that have not expanded the Medicaid rolls to comply with the healthcare mandate, and consequently, had lost out to receiving millions of federal dollars to assist with maintaining the program.  That money could have helped not only the new Medicaid enrollees that would have qualified for the program, but also current Medicaid beneficiaries.  The health care quality and accessibility of disabled and low-income individuals and families who would have tremendously benefited from being on Medicaid has taken a backseat, it seems, to the Party’s leading rejection of the ACA due to its loathsome opinion for President Obama.  

Many disability advocates and advocacy organizations have come forth stating why it is crucial to expand Medicaid:  the healthcare law entails key non-discrimination provisions, as well as improvements to Medicaid’s long-term services and support system, which are critical to meeting the needs of the disabled community.  Despite the monumental advantages of expanding Medicaid, political leaders have failed by allowing their most vulnerable residents to remain uninsured and with limited options to accessing dire healthcare treatments, services, and supports.  

The Disability Fraud Fairytale

What I tell people is, if you look like me and you hop out of your truck, you shouldn’t be getting a disability check.  Over half of the people on disability are either anxious or their back hurts — join the club.  Who doesn’t get a little anxious for work and their back hurts?  Everybody over 40 has a back pain.  And I am not saying that there are not legitimately people who are disabled.  But the people who are the malingerers are the ones taking the money away from the people who are paraplegic, quadriplegic.  You know, we all know people who are horrifically disabled and can’t work, but if you have able bodied people taking the money, then there is not enough money for the people who are truly disabled.”

–Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY.), remarks in New Hampshire, Jan. 14, 2015

Rand Paul is another Republican presidential candidate vying for the Party nomination who has made erroneous statements about the disabled experience, and have played a part in widening the “deserving” versus “undeserving” mentality concerning who should receive public benefits.  From the above quote, Rand Paul believes that there many people on disability are acting like Robin Hoods – feigning a disability to get rich off the government while taking from those who are “truly disabled.”  

Rand Paul breathed life into the disillusions surrounding disability beneficiaries.  Here are the real facts about those on the disability rolls:  

  • The large increase of beneficiaries to the disability program has been demographic base.  Our Baby Boomers are entering retirement age, and are qualifying for Social Security at rates that are putting a strain on the Program.  However, the peak period of that influx was seen in 2010; though now, they are getting on the rolls at a more steady pace.  The sharp increase was not due to scammers, as Rand Paul may believe  
  • It is not easy to get on disability.  According to the Social Security Administration (SSA), only 24 percent of individuals who applied for disability benefits were awarded during their first attempt, between 2003 and 2012.  During that same time period, 59 percent of disability applicants were denied, even after filing appeals.  
  • Mental health conditions qualify for Social Security benefits just as physical conditions are.  According to Disability Secrets, “Social Security has a set of disability listings for mental health disorders, ranging from depression-related illness, anxiety-related disorders, and psychotic disorders to autism, ADHD and learning disabilities, and intellectual/developmental disorders.  The disability listings contain criteria that the disorders must meet to be considered disabling.”  Being anxious, as Rand Paul mentioned in his statement, is not a standalone symptom to gain benefits; SSA has a detailed criteria model of how a disability, whether mental, emotional, and/or physical, must affect a person in order to qualify for assistance.  

Rand Paul is not the only politician to have these beliefs about disability benefits; many others within the Party have shared similar sentiments, and all have ignored the statistics surrounding the program and how it actually works.  

Voter Suppression Laws

The last offene to be discussed is the voter suppression laws that Republicans spearheaded since the last election in an attempt to reduce the voting fraud they believe will undermine our democratic process.  At least 37 states have considered or actually enacted mandates that require photo ID to vote, and these policies have met legal and social scrutiny.  What many do not realize is that not only are minority and elderly voters disadvantaged by photo ID legislation, but disabled voters are greatly affected, as well.  

According to NBC News, census data reports that 1 in 9 voting age Americans are disabled; and of the 17 percent of seniors who are 65 years and older, 36 percent are disabled.  Disabled voters, young and old, may encounter challenges in casting their vote for a number of reasons.  The biggest obstacle is the fact that many of these individuals may not have a valid driver’s license (or a state-issued ID that would be accepted as an alternative option).  One of the reasons they may not have photo identification, particularly a driver’s license, is due to the kind of disability a registered voter may have:  individuals with varying degrees of visual disabilities and reflex conditions may not be able to drive at all, or it may no longer be safe or comfortable for them to operate a motor vehicle.  It is feared that because many may not possess the proper photo identification required, the voting turnout for disabled persons, both under and over the age of 65, would decrease heavily.  

A troubling trend that would exacerbate voter suppression is states participating in practices aimed to discourage voters from attempting to gain access to photo IDs by restricting the number of DMV offices in their states.  Alabama made news this fall for conducting this practice; if voting-age disabled individuals do not have the transportation means to travel to an DMV office in the next county (or counties) to obtain a driver’s license, state-issued ID, or even register to vote, then how can disabled Americans fully exercise their right to vote with such conditions in place that seems to support exclusion and invisibility?  

Democrats:  We Are Dropping the Ball When It Comes to Disability Rights, Too

Though the Republicans have committed many offenses that stymie the progression and inclusion of disabled Americans, I must be quite frank and fair – Democrats do not fare much better.  

Whereas Trump and some of his Republican colleagues are doing what they can to berate and undermine the existence of disabled people with ableist behaviors and opinions, misconceptions about the vital programs we are entitled to, and harmful policy enactments and “quick fixes,” Democrats have left disabled Americans to fend for ourselves for some time now; the key difference is that they are less likely to polarize as a collective body against us.  

I will be honest – I am a yellow-dog Democrat; I believe in the ideals of the Party, and will defend the fights we take part in for the marginalized and oppressed.  However, the Democratic Party has failed, specifically, to keep the lifelines (Social Security and Medicaid) from being threatened by the Republican Party.  Every year, disabled Americans worry if this will be “the” year the Republicans will successfully defund or severely reduce financial and healthcare public programs.  For a party that supposedly supports the existence of these programs, Democrats have done a lackluster job to successfully remove these programs off political “life support” they have been forced on by the Republicans.  

When it comes to the disabled experience, both parties fail to acknowledge the barriers to education, employment, safety, health care, accessibility, and so forth, that impacts the inclusiveness and acceptance of the disability community within their political platforms.  For example, I have yet to hear a candidate, from either side of the presidential race, make a point to discuss how they plan to improve the lives of disabled Americans if they were to be elected President.  Though the likelihood of a Republican presidential candidate taking a firm stance to defy the opinions shared by its party members is slim (as there has been minimum reprimanding of Trump regarding the mocking incident, as an example), it would be expected for the Democrat Party to be the leader in addressing the concerns disabled Americans have, and how they would work diligently to diminish the systemic obstacles in place.  To ignore, whether intentionally or not, the largest minority group in the country is not only careless, but politically irresponsible.  Our issues matter, and it is well-overdue for both parties to take a visible political stand, and align their agendas to support our rights and lives.  

The Imperative Call for Disabled Voters to be a Powerful Voting Bloc in 2016

To reiterate the point of this post:  2016 has to be the year that disabled Americans exercise our right to vote because we cannot afford to have leaders in public office, on both sides of the aisle, who do not hear our voices, or take our realities seriously.  There are over 56 million Americans with disabilities; if every voting-age member in our community voted, we would undeniably shake up the political realm, and play a pivotal role in placing the next President in the White House.  In order to be taken seriously by either party, we have to be politically involved – we cannot take the chance of being overlooked because that is how ableism, discrimination, and exclusion breeds and take root in our society.  

It is our responsibility as citizens to call out political ableists like Donald Trump, and hold them accountable for their actions that disrespect us, whether they single out one person or all of us.  It is our charge to make these political parties work with us and work for us.  We as the American people have forgotten that those in Congress, and on the local and state levels of government, are employed by us – we have the power to vote them in AND vote them out if we believe that are not living up to the ideals they promised to uphold when campaigning for our support.  Our country is at a critical point; the decision as to who would be the next Commander in Chief cannot be made arbitrarily.  Candidates like Donald Trump bring home that truth with every offensive incident that divides instead of unites us.

Final Thoughts – Ramp Your Voice!

What feelings do you have about the latest Trump controversy?  Do you believe it will be enough to make the Trump runaway political train stop to a grinding halt?  

Are both parties failing disabled Americans, and if so, what can be done about it?  What would you like to see on the agendas of the presidential candidates from both sides that pertains to disability rights?  

And most importantly, are you registered to vote?  We must have the numbers to make the kind of impact that has to take place in this country in the 2016 election.  

(Featured headlining image:  Courtesy of ShutterStock.)

About Vilissa Thompson, LMSW

Vilissa is the Founder & CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization she created to establish herself as a Disability Rights Consultant & Advocate. Ramp Your Voice! is a prime example of how macro-minded Vilissa truly is, and her determination to leave a giant "tire track mark" on the world.

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