President Trump’s struggle to walk down a ramp and access a glass of water during his commencement address at the United States Military Academy at West Point has once again sparked questions about his well-being. Cable news networks like MSNBC and CNN dedicated time to discussing the president’s health and fitness for office.
Social media blew up with activities including #TrumpWaterChallenge and #HowToRamp. The Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump Republican group, pushed the hashtag #TrumpIsNotWell on social media, which led to Trump defending himself on Twitter.
This was only the latest round of attempts by nonmedical professionals to diagnose the president with a health condition from afar, in the course of mocking Trump.
Some have said that Trump’s deriding of his Democratic opponent as “Sleepy Joe” Biden makes it natural that he would be criticized. Others say that Trump’s mocking of disabled reporter Serge Kovaleski should have disqualified him from being elected.
But the answer to Trump’s ableism can’t be to outdo him. Ableism hurts people with disabilities regardless of who pushes it. And while Trump may be mildly angered enough to tweet something, it sticks with many disabled people long afterward. Trump’s campaign might rally around a message that Biden is cognitively impaired, but a “who can out-ableist who” showdown serves nobody.
As a little person, I regularly encounter people on the street who get down on their knees and mock how I walk, or people who stop their cars in the middle of traffic to get out and take pictures of me or my children. Other people who switch between using a wheelchair and walking are frequently accused of faking their disability.
Every single professional with a disability I know has been questioned privately and publicly about whether their “condition” hinders their ability to do their job. This is a universal truth and fear for any individual across physical, mental, intellectual, sensory and chronic illness communities.
This social shaming is bad enough. But it is combined with the government’s attacks on people with disabilities and their families who receive benefits such as Social Security Disability Insurance, nutrition assistance or lighting and heating assistance as fakers, takers and moneymakers. This adds fuel to the “fear of the disability con” as described by scholars like Doron Dorfman, or the idea that a majority of people who use services and supports tied to a disability, in fact, are not disabled.
Stigma against people with disabilities is real and dangerous. It has serious effects on how people with disabilities are treated in real life, including a steady unemployment rate that hovers around 70 percent, over 20 states that allow child custody to be removed solely on the basis of a parent’s disability, and between 60 and 80 percent of polling places being inaccessible 30 years after the Americans With Disabilities Act. A person’s ability to use a ramp or drink from a glass of water has no bearing on whether someone can fulfill the essential functions of a job, including serving as the president of the United States.
I do not know whether the president has a disability. But I do believe that Trump’s character flaws are too numerous to count. His administration has repeatedly attacked the disability community and the programs many of us depend on for survival, rolled back special education regulations, proposed making it harder to enroll in and maintain Supplemental Security Income and Social Security Disability Insurance benefits, attacked immigration for people with disabilities and their loved ones, scapegoated mental health instead of enacting common sense gun violence prevention, and so much more. He has also flaunted breaking ethics pledges, laws, and checks and balances that are the very foundation of our democracy.
Still, it seems to be easier for folks to argue for the removal of the president based on a perceived disability. The ableism that pervades society makes it easy to argue that someone is a failure because they’re disabled, not because they’re evil, unethical and unqualified.
Furthermore, blaming the worst parts of Trump’s campaign and presidency on a disability lets people who voted for him off the hook. If he is disabled, then there may be things that he is experiencing that are out of his control but that he is refusing to recognize or acknowledge in a public setting. However, on the other hand, recognizing that he is fully aware of what he does means his supporters have to own what he does.
Watching our allies join the latest bandwagon of Trump bashing is extremely hurtful and can feel as though promises of solidarity are based on convenience and not authenticity. It feels as though they can compartmentalize their relationships with disabled people and their thoughts about the president as separate things. We often hear this when our loved ones say “I see you, not your disability,” which for several people in our community erases our identities.
I want to see Trump out of the presidency come November. I have advised Democratic presidential candidates, including Biden, on disability policy because Trump is uniquely harmful to people with disabilities. Our folks have been disproportionately targeted by our administration and are dying because of these attacks.
But making fun of him for his difficulty walking down a ramp — a device, which, ironically, has improved the lives of countless disabled people — or making fun of how he drinks water just ends up drowning out the voices of disabled voters.