Why Everyone Thinks that They Care About Disability Rights When They Really Don’t

On Thursday, Rachel Maddow asked “Who campaigns on gutting the American’s with Disabilities Act?” in a segment that included no interviews with disabled people.

She asks the question and seems to understand that the answer is “no, one” but she fails to ask or investigate why no one would ever openly say

“Send me to Washington, I’m going to stick it to disabled people. Send me to Washington and when I take my votes, you’ll see blind people, and people in wheelchairs being hauled out of the gallery in the house and arrested because I’m taking away the most important parts of the most important legislation that has integrated disabled people into mainstream life and American public accommodation”

or have an

“I’m a wheelchair user’s worst enemy caucus”

but still, vote in favour of legislation that will invariably harm disabled people.

Because, to be clear, this question isn’t just about the HR 620 vote that Maddow is addressing in that segment. That’s just the latest example of the say one thing but do the opposite phenomenon that is an all too common aspect of disability-specific legislation and policy in the United Staes and beyond.

This phenomenon was also front and centre in every attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

It is present in the continuing controversy about austerity measures and benefits cuts in the United Kingdom.

It can be found in the fact that Toronto’s Transit Commission is unlikely to meet the goal of making all subway stations accessible by 2025 as the Access for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) requires.

This is a really common thing. You ask a random sampling of nondisabled people if they support more rights and opportunities for disabled people and the majority if not all will emphatically respond with a “yes”

If you ask them to follow through with the actions needed to make that ideology a practical reality, suddenly they’re either no longer available or they start making excuses.

There are a number of factors at work here, to create this paradoxical reality where disability rights are being clawed back or are under threat and yet most people when asked will passionately claim that they love disabled people and want them to thrive. It would take more space than I’m sure you have attention for to go through all of it (it could fill several books) but I’ll try and go through a few of issues at play. It all boils down to a single idea though.

The bar for what constitutes solidarity for disabled people is so low that simply not actively hating us is considered a radical act. Put another way, people have convinced themselves that simply reacting with the appropriate emotion is considered an act of resistance. As opposed to actually acting to resist systems that oppress disabled people.

Some of this is culturally constructed. One of the big reasons people can say one thing but let the opposite thing happen is because of how we understand poverty.

Western cultures all generally have some kind of understanding that there are portions of the population that are going to require assistance. They may differ on how they think those people should be helped. Should the government be in charge? Should it be nonprofits? Should we leave it to religious institutions?

Ultimately, who’s in charge is irrelevant because inevitably people are fine with the amorphous idea that people who are poor, sick, disabled, or elderly need and deserve assistance. Problems show up as soon as people start to act on those ideas and the need is too great for the resources available. Instead of looking for more resources, people start debating about “who really deserves to be helped”.

That’s where narratives of the lazy poor or benefits cheats come from. Not because those are widespread phenomena but because doubt is useful to people who either don’t know how to help or feel that too much is being asked of them. So they come up with excuses about why the person who needs help isn’t really deserving after all.

Disabled people have long found themselves firmly in the category of people deemed worthy of assistance but they often don’t get it. Consider the “ugly laws”, a set of policies and bylaws often incorrectly assumed to ban disabled people from public spaces outright. They were, in fact, more accurately anti-vagrancy laws. They were often premised on the idea that disabled people were justified in begging. The problem was they were convinced that people were faking disabilities to unfairly gain sympathy.

While that undoubtedly did happen it likely wasn’t as widespread as people thought. The suggestion that, that beggar might be faking his war wound was enough doubt to allow people to not only feel justified but righteous in not giving the poor money. “The ugly law” also allowed for people who were begging to be removed from the streets. Often specifically under the guise of removing the “riff-raff” so that the truly deserving poor would not be disadvantaged.

That dichotomy of the deserving and undeserving poor allows for people to maintain the idea that they want to help poor and disadvantaged people (the deserving poor) while putting up ever more restrictive barriers to getting access to that assistance (the actual poor…excuse me the “deserving” poor).

A lot of social services are delivered with expansive mission statements that do not seem to match the output of those services.

Disabled people, in general, have theoretically maintained “deserving” status throughout the history of social services in the last few centuries. Yet we remain underserved.

The rhetoric never seems to match the output.

Consider how British Prime Minister Theresa May talks about Personal Independence Payments (AKA PIP a financial benefit for disabled people in Britain) in the midst of real concerns over the impact of cuts. These statements were made in the context of there being clear identifiable harms happening as a direct result of government policy.

“If you look at what we’ve been doing on disability benefits, what we have done is look at focusing disability benefit payments on those who are most in need. In fact, we are spending more on disability benefit payments than has been done by any government in the past,” she replied.” (emphasis mine)…

“We have changed the way that disability benefits have been paid and I know there are some issues that people continue to raise about assessments that are made on those payments. But we will continue to be moving to a system that ensures we are supporting those most in need.” (emphasis mine)

In the face of cuts, the official line is still “the people who need it are getting help” the implication is thought that the people who saw their payments cut or lost benefits altogether are no longer in need. So, if they complain they are lazy scroungers.

It doesn’t matter that the restructuring of benefits did not come as a result, a large scale movement of disabled people into work. People were not becoming spontaneously cured. Their needs didn’t change. The only difference is how the government defined them.

People also can’t seem to remember that disabled people deserve access to public spaces the second money comes up. It’s always too expensive to make things accessible. That’s the basic crux of HR 620, the legislation seeking to gut the ADA.

It’s just really unfair that people have to actually make an effort to make their businesses accessible. It’s a step too far. Can’t we all feel really good that the ADA exists? Do we really have to follow it through? Can’t we just bask in the glow of the intentions behind it?

Though as the Toronto Transit example points out even keeping accessibility legislation as is won’t stop people from not following through with its requirements if they can claim it’s too expensive.

I wonder sometimes how much it costs to build steps. To pour the concrete for that one step into a building. How much do stairs cost to go between floors? How much does building the accessibility of nondisabled people cost? Is it more than a ramp? Is it more than the lowered sink and tilted mirror in the bathroom? Did the other sinks and mirrors cost so much more? or is it just that the things that accommodate disabled people in those spaces are always seen as extra?

Disabled people are a cultural paradox. We are both widely considered deserving of rights and dignity but if we are denied them, little is done and excuses are made.

The fact that disabled people are now more likely to demand meaningful inclusion and not simply settle for the subsistence of charity has also challenged the historically paternalistic view of disabled people.

They are supposed to save us. Often from the ravages of our own bodies and minds. We are not supposed to say that we really need saving from exclusion and systems that keep us in poverty.

Unfortunately, people still look to charity as not only the best way to assist disabled. On this front charities are fundamentally failing the people they claim to want to help. Awareness is big business but the bar is unfortunately not set at meaningful understanding of the cultural and economic status of disabled people. They instead far too often ask only for sentiments. In short, they ask for nondisabled people to affirm that they do not hate us.

From the Cerebral Palsy Foundation’s functionally meaningless “Just Say Hi” campaign which basically asks that people prove that they are not afraid of disabled people by saying “hi” to them.

It doesn’t interrogate why people are uncomfortable around disabled people. It doesn’t question whether disabled people want to be said “hi” too just because they’re disabled. It doesn’t consider how this campaign contributes to a toxic culture of voyeurism that strips disabled people of privacy.

Easterseals has recently rolled out its Celebrate, Don’t Separate campaign which is supposedly about changing the way people see disability. The campaign is filled with the voices of disabled people explaining how they want to be seen.

What action then does Easterseals recommend people do?

Do they want you to call your government representatives and demand action on inclusion in the workforce or in education?


Do they want you to consider ways that you can make your home/workplace/school more accessible?


Do they want you to donate money to create a fund to invest in accessible infrastructure?


They want you to take a photo of you hooking your index finger with someone else’s and posting on social media.

I can’t think of a more empty gesture.

We already know that people find it all too easy to express warm and fuzzy sentiments about disabled people. It’s the work of making those sentiments a practical reality that they can’t seem to grasp.

Empty gestures that lack meaningful action only reinforce the idea that conjuring up the right emotion is a radical act. It lets people think that they are either helping or at least not contributing to the problem as long as they can call up a warm and fuzzy feeling at the general concept of inclusion without having to create it. The fact that we don’t live in a world that can live up to the intentions of existing policies and legislation is largely irrelevant.

Hell, we live in a world where those intentions are held up as evidence of success even as they clearly haven’t been lived up too or are being actively undermined.

Any campaign built on recruiting sentiment instead of action needs to be abandoned.

If you claim to care about disabled people and our rights, be prepared to act in defence of them.

Here are some things that you can actually do.

Call politicians about bad disability-related legislation.

Attend protests in support of disability issues. Don’t just gasp and clutch your pearls when ADAPT activists are being arrested and dragged out of their wheelchairs. If they get arrested, you should step into the protest in their place.

Donate to charities and organizations that are run by and for disabled people

Support disabled content creators. Put money in the hands of disabled people.

Do not hide behind a generic feeling of fellowship and good intentions. Make sure those intentions are matched by measurable outcomes.



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The Ineffectiveness of Sentiment Masquerading as Disability Solidarity

UN quote

Image description: Abridged quote from 2016 UN Report. It reads “The State party have met the threshold of grave or systemic violations of the rights of persons with disabilities”

We live in a world that is fundamentally inaccessible to disabled people. Physical access to public space is still a significant barrier. Social policies also make it difficult for disabled people to participate in society. Yet, these issues rarely make the news unless they are perceived as particularly callous.

Consider when Calgary Airport removed wheelchair accessible spaces to put in reserved space for Lexus Vehicles or the proposed dementia tax in the UK. These issues cause outcry and change to those specific incidences. The rage that these situations is inspired by the idea that these sorts of things shouldn’t and generally don’t happen anymore.

It is a long-standing sentimental response to overly callous behaviour. Consider the 1993 Canadian federal election where the Progressive Conservatives were faced with fury over an attack ad that was perceived to belittle then Liberal Leader Jean Chretien based on his facial paralysis as a result of Bell’s Palsy.

Video Description: Audio attacks Liberal policies while still close-up images of Jean Chretien’s face are shown.

This was met with a large amount of backlash. Some even credit it with the Progressive Conservatives (PC) losing the election. Though that is impossible to prove and unlikely considering the PC’s were already low in the polls before the ad ever aired.

Quick rage at easily identifiable wrongs against disabled people is common but it rarely leads to meaningful action or even comes from an awareness of the lived reality of disability.

This is probably best exemplified by the continued referencing and indignance around Donald Trump’s 2016 mockery of Serge Kovaleski. Though he is tellingly most frequently referred to not by his name but simply as “the disabled reporter”.

Outrage over that incident both obscures the racism and Islamophobia that inspired Trump’s actions and essentially reduced solidarity to disabled people to the ability to identify and condemn specific incidences of bullying or discrimination against specific individuals.

This ability for callous treatment of disabled people to inspire the ire of nondisabled people extends beyond election campaigns. Consider this tweet I can across yesterday.

It includes an image of text from a Dear Prudie segment from Salon which reads,

Q. Daughter’s friend being in wedding: My 27-year-old daughter and her best friend, Katie, have been best friends since they were 4. Katie practically grew up in our house and is like a daughter to me. My daughter recently got engaged to her fiancé and announced that Katie would be the maid of honor (Katie’s boyfriend is also a good friend of my future son-in-law). The problem is that Katie walks with a pretty severe limp due to a birth defect (not an underlying medical issue). She has no problem wearing high heels and has already been fitted for the dress, but I still think it will look unsightly if she’s in the wedding procession limping ahead of my daughter. I mentioned this to my daughter and suggested that maybe Katie could take video or hand out programs (while sitting) so she doesn’t ruin the aesthetic aspect of the wedding. My daughter is no longer speaking to me (we were never that close), but this is her big wedding and I want it to be perfect. All of the other bridesmaids will look gorgeous walking down the aisle with my daughter. Is it wrong to have her friend sit out?

Prudence quickly takes the questioner to task for her easily identifiable bigotry.

The key here is that the bigotry is overt and easily identifiable with a clear individual victim.

This is I suspect largely why incidences like this illicit public censure. It is less to do with an understanding of the social realities of disability as a disabled person who responded to the tweet points out,

The issue for nondisabled people is the public display of horrific behaviour, not a real desire to understand how widespread the issue really is. As long as the harm happens out of sight. People don’t seem to care. It is a purely performative and self-serving kind of solidarity. The response is simply condemnation without action or even a real awareness of the extent of the issue.

Horror at these incidences rarely results in meaningful action. Consider when ADAPT activists were protesting the proposed ACA repeal. People stared at the news in horror as images and videos of activists being dragged from their wheelchairs by police. The response predominantly stayed at horror and condemnation. Sure more people than ADAPT were actively protesting the ACA repeal but in the face of horror and condemnation of that specific treatment of disabled activists. The response stayed at horror and condemnation. It did not spark a large solidarity protest at Mitch McConnell’s office. People stayed home and clutched their pearls at the images on their computer and television screens.

Disability solidarity far too often stops at sentiment and condemnation and I can only credit this to the continued widespread ignorance of the realities of being disabled and continued systemic ableism.

How can people express shock at isolated incidences of the mistreatment of disabled people but not me moved to protest the systemic inequality disabled people experience.

In the UK for the second time in two years, the UN has condemned grievous state sanctioned human rights abuses against disabled citizens. That situation did not come from isolated incidences of cruelty performed by a single easily identifiable villain. That situation was created and maintained by the systemic willingness of millions of people across political lines to disregard the humanity of disabled people.

But sure Donald Trump being an asshole to a disabled guy that one time was bad.

In Canada, disabled people experience unequal access to healthcare and are screened out of eligibility to immigrate to the country.

But sure pat yourselves on the back for the 1993 Liberal election victory by misguidingly associating it with a nationwide moment of solidarity against bigotry.

I have intentionally made this post about international realities to really highlight how much farther we have to go than the mere condemnation of easily identifiable moments of bigotry.

Disabled people need more than sentimentality. We need action. We need change. We need people to question their own prejudices and how they might be contributing to the systems that oppress us and keep us from fully participating in the world we live in.

People need to get over the idea that society has moved beyond cruelty to disabled people. It hasn’t and the misguided belief that it has actively maintains systems of oppression.



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No, Mitch McConnell’s Polio Treatment Wasn’t Government funded and it Likely Influenced his views on Healthcare

A couple of days ago a meme starting going around Facebook about Mitch McConnell’s history of surviving polio


Image Description: A black and white photo presumably of Mitch McConnell as a child with the text “As a kid, Mitch McConnell had polio, and the government paid for ALL of his care and rehabilitation. Now, as the leader of the Republicans in the Senate, McConnell is taking government-funded care away from tens of millions of Americans. Let that sink in”

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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