Many Americans are in shock and mourning over the recent election. As a woman with cerebral palsy, I have never felt so alone.
When I go to the voting polls, I don’t wait in line because my disability makes it difficult to stand for long periods of time. When I walked into my polling place, I addressed the poll workers present to explain this; they immediately began speaking about me in the third person rather than addressing me directly.
After voting, I went to wait for the bus. I noticed that a café my husband and I have long frequented recently reopened after renovation in front of the bus stop. Despite the New York City law that all new spaces must be wheelchair accessible, the café not only had stairs, but the stairs changed the structure of the original building for the sake of style. Although I do not use a wheelchair, every time I see something like this, my imagination sees a huge sign that reads “No Disabled People Allowed.”
Next, I proceeded to the university where I teach. I went to my mailbox to pick up a written observation a senior professor had done in my class a few weeks prior. She gave me a good review, but also referred to me as “differently abled,” a well-meaning but wildly outdated term. I wasn’t offended, but frustrated that someone who sat through an hour of my class focused on disability didn’t quite “get it.”
As I was walking to class, I heard a child ask her mother, “Why does she walk like that?”
This was Tuesday; in other words, a routine day in my life. I know that these comments and actions are not malicious; these events are merely the product of ignorance and apathy. And yet, the excuse of “not paying attention” is beginning to wear me down, big time. When will there come a time when professors have spent a few hours reading about disability activism and perhaps including it in their classes? When will there come a time when parents speak openly about disability? When will businesses begin to follow the law and make space for everyone? When will there come a time when we are included?
Donald Trump, now the president-elect, is known for referring to a major Deaf actress, Marlee Matlin, as “retarded.” When he mocked a reporter with a physical disability, Ann Coulter chimed in on Trump’s behalf to say that he wasn’t mocking the reporter, just “a standard retard.” Trump has spoken directly about his belief in the importance of the physically fit. The Democrats are not doing much better. One Democrat suggested to me at a party after the election that there should be a law stating Supreme Court justices have to have a physical and mental exam after age 70 to prove their competency. The ageist and ableist ramifications of this idea were lost on this person.
While Clinton was supportive of disabled people and promised to uphold policies to help them, that wasn’t enough for this voter. I feel like Clinton could have addressed the issue of sheltered workshops, affirmative action, and widespread failures of the Americans with Disabilities Act. To a large degree, the Clinton campaign was a feminist one. Although I do see the logic behind this and do not wholly disagree, this made it difficult to back her.
As a woman who grew up in the 1970s, feminism has always been on my radar. But when I became a disability activist, I found feminist discourse to be lacking and at odds with my needs, opinions, and rights. I have felt too much pressure to support feminism, even as feminist news outlets, such as Feministing, Jezebel, and others, have excluded disabled writers and their issues again and again. For example, legal abortion without discussion is central to modern feminism. Abortion is sometimes used as a selection process based on whether the fetus is found to have a disability. I wish that feminists would acknowledge and be open to a public discussion that abortion can be a reflection of ableism. I also diverge with feminists on other issues. I have never felt pressure to have a child. Disabled women are pressured not to have children, as Sheila Black points out. And as I wrote in my recent New York Times article, my attitudes about sexuality diverge from those usually discussed in mainstream feminism.
In the wider realm, as political protests continue, I find able-bodied people’s inclusion of disabled voices continuously lacking. One doesn’t have to look much further than the lack of press or outcry over Jeff Sessions disparaging special education to see that ableism doesn’t get enough attention. Even in the midst of major protests, abled people still aren’t aware of us. Memes and calls from activist groups exclude disability again and again. Marches aren’t available to most disabled people. They are very physical activities and organizers need to include rest stops, ASL translators, and volunteers to help people who are visually impaired.
Disabled people have a lot to lose, perhaps more than most. If Trump cuts Medicaid and Medicare, people with severe disabilities will die. Period. It’s not merely a matter of equal rights; it’s life or death.
Unfortunately, Trump might want it this way—and he’s not alone. Most Americans see severely disabled people as a wasted population and burden on society. But not all of us think this way. People of all abilities have families, children, and careers. We have a perspective that is valuable, just as valuable as any other perspective, and we deserve to be included.
Jennifer Bartlett is the author of three collections of poetry and co-editor of Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. Recently, Bartlett published an op-ed piece in the New York Times on disability and sexuality.