Last year, Donald Trump, now President-elect of the United States, was caught making fun of Serge Kovaleski, a reporter with arthrogryposis, a condition that causes severe joint contractures. The footage went viral. The incident became a defining moment of Trump’s campaign.
When I did a quick Google search for “trump disability,” all but one hit on the first page of results focused on this incident (and the one article that didn’t still brought it up, referring to it as the “most egregious” moment of the Trump campaign with regard to disability issues). This particular behavior, very similar to so much of Trump’s other behavior, has been cited as the most unforgiveable. Recently, the now-infamous screenshot of CNN’s coverage of the event has been making the rounds on social media again, this time in the form of a tweet from Damien Owens, captioned: “As long as I live, I will never understand how this alone wasn’t the end of it.”
But many advocates who themselves have disabilities are sick of hearing about it, and of trying to explain that this kind of coverage is paternalistic, representing not an alternative to ableism but just another ugly side of it. The idea that making fun of a person with a disability is the most unimaginable thing a person could do plays into the notion that people with disabilities are victims to be protected. The suggestion that targeting disability is more inexcusable than targeting other markers of oppression is dehumanizing in its own right.
Was Trump’s behavior inappropriate, hateful, profoundly unpresidential? Absolutely. But not any more so than calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals. Not any more than claiming Muslims are terrorists who should be unilaterally banned from entering the U.S. Not any more than suggesting women should be judged by their physical attractiveness. If verbal abuse of marginalized people was the standard for disqualification, “the end of it” should have come long before Trump made fun of Mr. Kovaleski.
Nobody knows Serge Kovaleski’s name—the media has reduced him to a screenshot, to “that disabled reporter.” Even Hillary Clinton subtly misrepresented him by using the now infamous footage of Trump’s mockery in a campaign ad featuring a mother whose son was on the autism spectrum. The boy was depicted flapping his hands—a form of stimming common among people on the spectrum. Kovaleski’s name wasn’t mentioned, nor was the difference in the causes for these two people’s atypical body movements. Maybe the point was that Trump is bad news for all people with disabilities, but the lack of context and the failure to use the reporter’s name made it feel like Kovaleski was being used as a prop, that individuals with disabilities are interchangeable. Never mind that Hillary actually had a pretty comprehensive, fairly well-received autism plan that could have been highlighted here—the objectification of Mr. Kovaleski was considered to be a more effective campaigning technique.
The mother in the Clinton ad claimed to have crossed party lines to vote for Hillary because her autistic son “can’t live in Trump world.” She’s not wrong, but what the advertisement failed to convey—and what most indignant liberal retweeters of the Trump-making-fun-of-disabled-reporter image fail to consider—is that what people with disabilities are really worried about is not just mockery, but the potential for material harm that may result from a Trump presidency.
Instead of circulating that image ad nauseum, advocates suggest, look into the effect Trump and his people are going to have on education policy, on health care, on civil rights for people with disabilities, too many of whom still live in segregated settings or work meaningless jobs for less than minimum wage.
Consider the appointment of Betsy DeVos, champion of school vouchers and charter schools, for Secretary of Education. Proponents of school vouchers, which provide low-income families with funding towards private school tuition, argue that these programs help level the educational playing field by giving students and families the same kind of choice enjoyed by more affluent families. But “rescuing” some students from “failing” schools doesn’t improve things for the kids left behind, and not all kids have an equal chance at being “rescued.” Private schools aren’t obligated to provide special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Similarly, charter schools can “counsel out” students who are perceived to not be a “good fit” for the school—often those with academic or behavioral needs that would require extra support. While school vouchers and charter schools may look like a helpful stopgap solution for providing an “out” to some students, both models divert funding away from traditional public schools tasked with providing a free, appropriate public education to all students, even those with the most significant support needs.
Consider also the proposed nomination of Jeff Sessions for Attorney General. As The Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN) points out,
The Attorney General oversees the Department of Justice. This agency’s work could not be more vital to the disability community. The Department of Justice is responsible for enforcing countless laws protecting civil rights and voting rights. It protects the rights of people interacting with police and helps track and prosecute hate crimes. For the past several years, the Department of Justice has actively enforced the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Olmstead decision, resulting in increased community inclusion for disabled people across the country.
In 2000, Sessions argued against some of the legal protections offered to students with disabilities under IDEA, contesting the right of children with disabilities (particularly those labeled with emotional and behavioral disorders) to be educated in integrated settings. Sessions claimed that “certain children are allowed to remain in the classroom robbing the other children of hours that can never be replaced,” that this “special treatment” constitutes what “may be the single most irritating problem for teachers throughout America today,” and that the solution is to “do what it takes to take our schools back from this small group of children who feel it is their right to endanger the education of every other child in school.” Sessions has also frequently opposed healthcare measures and voting rights protections, both of which are essential to the well-being and realization of rights for Americans with disabilities (not to mention the intersection of disability with other marginalized identities, none of which Sessions seems too keen on protecting either).
With regard to specific policies pertaining to people with disabilities, it’s difficult to say what’s in store. Ari Ne’eman, president of ASAN, points out that, in general,
“One of the challenges here is that the (Trump) campaign was not very specific about disability policy plans and those areas that they were specific about concern us.”
Many such concerns refer to healthcare and service provision: threats to Affordable Care Act, Medicaid, and SSI/SSDI under a Republican administration. Others stem from his discouraging track record in complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Still others relate to ties to debunked anti-vaxxer theories and to organizations that use fear rhetoric to argue for the prevention and cure of disabilities such as autism (rather than the provision of supports to improve the lives of individuals and their families).
While it’s not yet clear exactly what a Trump administration will bring with regard to disability rights and services, what is clear is that there are a lot of very real issues that matter to the disability community, and that Trump’s making fun of Serge Kovaleski—while grossly uncalled for—is just the tip of the iceberg. Unfortunately, neither this incident nor any of Trump’s other absurd sayings and doings was enough to bring about “the end of it.” So for those of us interested in supporting the disability community in the era of Trump, that means it’s probably time to let go of the paternalistic bewilderment at how anyone could make fun of someone like Kovaleski, listen to what people with individuals with disabilities actually want and need, and help them fight for it.
One easy way to begin doing this is to tune in to what’s going on in the online disability community. This is not even close to an exhaustive list, but here are some good places to start:
- Lydia X.Z. Brown - “Autistic Hoya”
- Emily Ladeau - “Words I Wheel By”
- Kim Sauder – “Crippled Scholar”