A couple of days ago a meme starting going around Facebook about Mitch McConnell’s history of surviving polio
The thing is, beyond the fact that McConnell did in fact have Polio as a child, the rest of the text is false. His care was not government funded. He received care at the frankly prestigious Warm Springs. A rehabilitation retreat founded by Franklin Roosevelt.
There are a number of reasons why McConnell’s history with polio doesn’t necessarily make him a natural ally of the disability rights movement. Which is not to excuse him for his work on the former AHCA and the current BRCA.
If we are to assume that Mitch McConnell’s history with polio impacted his political opinions on health care at all, it is important to understand the lessons that he would have learned.
He received state-of-the-art care at a facility which was not government-funded and which was founded by a man who spent his entire political career hiding the fact he was disabled. So not only did McConnell receive care from a facility that was either funded through philanthropy or by the patients themselves. The ultimate model of success for polio survivors at the time was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. A man who successfully hid his disability in order to become president of the United States.
The funding model of Warm Springs alone does not provide any sort of model or incentive to support government-funded medical care. In fact, its private funding and charity model actively oppose it.
Then there is the real cultural impact that FDR had on polio survivors. He hid his disability. No one saw what accommodations were made in order that he could go about his day-to-day business. He was a very visible model for “overcoming disability”. His example had a real and measurable impact on polio survivors. Living in the shadow of FDR as Daniel Wilson (2013) would say, naturally led to the need to pass as nondisabled.
Those who followed the example of FDR worked to hide the visible symptoms of having survived polio. It is unsurprising that someone who survived polio with as few lasting visible effects as Mitch McConnell would feel that Association with disability was something to be avoided. It would have absolutely been an idea strongly modelled to him in the way he was treated for his polio and in the cultural ideas of disability that existed in the time that he was being treated. Not only was that the general goal of rehabilitation at the time. McConnell is and was privileged enough to have access to the best possible therapy is of the time.
It is important to remember that simply having a history of disability does not naturally create an affinity for disability rights. Historically, and in present day there are cultural narratives that reinforce the idea that disability is something to be overcome or to separate the person from. Their ideas that disability and illness are issues to be dealt with on an individual level, which is precisely the experience that Mitch McConnell would have had.
So, Mitch McConnell isn’t actually a hypocrite for his positions on health care legislation in the United States. They’re very much positions that are based in history and precisely what would have been modelled for him as a child when he was experiencing disablement.
It is not enough to simply expect people with a connection to disability to have progressive views on disability rights. There is a long cultural history of telling such people that they shouldn’t feel connected to or responsible for other disabled people. In the fight for disability rights and for the maintenance of Medicaid it is important to understand and remember how history has created a culturally acceptable identity of disability which actively rejects disability. The people who can most easily maintain such ideas are people like Mitch McConnell who are privileged enough to be able to access and maintain care when they needed without outside assistance.
So, in order to effectively fight for disability rights it is also necessary to remember and dismantle the history that has been created to maintain the system of separation and disunity. It is important to remember that internalized negative feelings around disability are common and actively cultivated in disabled people. It is important to understand the difference in ability to access care that people like Mitch Connell had that precludes him from properly understanding the lived realities of people fighting for Medicaid today. It is not enough to simply expect or even hope that simply because someone has a history with disability or disablement that they will somehow have a natural empathy for others in similar situations. Particularly when they have been actively taught and socialized not to feel that way.
Mitch McConnell’s history with polio is an important and relevant story to remember and tell now not because it makes him a hypocrite but it explains how someone with a history with disability who has come to a position of power can so utterly disregard the needs and lives of other disabled people.
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