Ally or Enemy?

Texans find themselves in a distinctly modern dilemma in choosing their new leader: should they choose the man with disabilities or the single mother who pulled herself out of poverty?

People across the state of Texas and beyond were captivated last summer when Wendy Davis launched her now-famous filibuster in the state Senate opposing a bill that would dramatically impact women’s reproductive rights.  It was quite a scene in Austin.  I recall watching it unfold online, thanks to the live streaming from the Texas Tribune, as my toddler snoozed in his crib.  My husband sent periodic updates from the Capitol, where he was camped out in Senator Kirk Watson’s office frantically looking for legal arguments to push the filibuster through until midnight.  Subsequent weeks saw repeated protests, marches, and demonstrations.  We wore orange to show our solidarity with Wendy (a truly unfortunate color for many of us, but the anti-choice side had already claimed blue).  It was an unassuming and diverse crowd.  Couples my parents’ age set up camp on the Capitol lawn with folding chairs and portable fans.  I met mom friends and we waves signs of support as our babies banged on toy drums, noshed on fresh fruit, and toddled on the grass.

Galvanized by a shockingly retrograde state legislature that thought nothing of chipping away at women’s rights, something surprising happened: suddenly, Texas had its first viable state-level Democratic political star in decades.  Wendy announced a run for governor in October.  Her opponent, current state Attorney General Greg Abbott,  was widely assumed until Davis’ announcement to be a shoe-in.  Perhaps he still is, but I am hopeful.  It can be difficult to judge broader state sentiment from the progressive bubble of Austin, yet the dominant hope in my camp is that women, people of color, and other voters who have traditionally been left out of the state political process will step up.  It would truly be a sea change, not only for our state but for the country.  After the last few decades, one struggles to imagine a national scene in which Texas was a blue, rather than red, powerhouse.

The two candidates have compelling personal stories of overcoming barriers.  Wendy’s is well-known and was featured recently as the cover story of the New York Times Magazine. Abbott, too, is running both on his Conservative political charms and also in large part on his experience as a person with disabilities.  Abbott was paralyzed three decades ago when a tree fell on him during a jog.  He uses a wheelchair and has steel rods implanted in his spine.  He now likes to invoke his actual, rather than metaphorical, “steel spine” as the embodiment of his strength and determination.  His disability is central to his political persona, both through the metaphor of steel and strength and also by way of the imagery of the wheelchair.  Texans find themselves in a distinctly modern dilemma in choosing their new leader: should they choose the man with disabilities or the single mother who pulled herself out of poverty?

Identity politics are seductive, as we all know, and one must not equate public appearances with ally status.  Abbott’s relationship with disability exemplifies this, as revealed by last Sunday’s piece from the Dallas Morning News, “Greg Abbott Pushes to Block Disabled Texans’ Lawsuits Against the State.”  Although Abbott has no doubt benefited in his daily life from the accessibility guaranteed by the ADA, he evidently does not feel that others deserve the same benefits.  Or, to put it more accurately, he does not believe that Texas is required to implement the ADA and, as an unfortunate side effect, Texans with disabilities will get shut out of the law’s intended benefits.  It’s a curious denial of landmark federal legislation, regardless of Abbott’s own disability status.  In light of his personal story, it is downright despicable.  As the reporter, Christy Hoppe, writes:

“In a series of legal cases in his three terms, Abbott’s office has fought a blind pharmacy professor in Amarillo who wanted reflective tape on the stairs to her office; two deaf defendants in Laredo who asked for a qualified sign language interpreter in their courtroom; and a woman with an amputated leg. In that case, the state argued she was not disabled because she had a prosthetic limb.”

When it comes to disability services, Texas isn’t exactly a shining star.  For more information on disability services and inclusion, the Case for Inclusion by United Cerebral Palsy offers an extensive overview of the most recent date.  Texas ranked 49th in state inclusion and services in 2013, which is consistent with its historical position and reputation regarding disability issues.  It is shocking that a state with so much wealth – one that has emerged as a beacon of prosperity during the nation’s current economic struggles – either cannot or will not care for its disability population.  One cannot help but wonder about the social underpinnings of this broader climate of neglect and marginalization.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Wendy and we chatted briefly about my research on disability.  She seemed genuinely interested in the struggles of families to obtain services and support in a state with a notoriously bleak social welfare climate.  We spoke of the everyday impact of funding cuts on these parents and their children.  A small part of me could not believe that a politician was so interested in disability issues.

When I speak with families for my research, I keep my political views quiet.  One of the first things I did upon beginning this research was to clean out my Facebook page, deleting some of my more flamingly left-wing posts and links.  It is not my place to judge other families, but I will say one thing: a politician like Abbott – one so unapologetically steadfast in his opposition to the ADA – is dangerous.  Over the years, my deafblind sister has benefited enormously from state and federal programs, but she has also been irrevocably harmed by the refusal of certain individuals within particular systems to implement these mandates.  People like Abbott hurt children and families in the most literal way – physically, emotionally, developmentally, and socially.  We have the stories to prove it and, speaking as a sibling, research, and proud ally, we should be prepared to use them.

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