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OPINION: Leaving Politics at the Automatic Door

Over the last two months, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s health has been the subject of intense public speculation. Following recent incidents where the politician briefly struggled to respond to reporters at two press conferences, concerns about his ability to remain in office have been raised by many. Whether these concerns are cited in seemingly serious debates over medical evidence such as in time.com or in ridiculing jest on social media, the negative focus on behaviors linked to disability reveals our lesser regard for disabled people. These questions and preoccupations with McConnell’s health demonstrate prejudicial attitudes that prevent disabled people from accessing employment and enable politicians like McConnell to advance public policies that systematically harm the disabled community.

The negative focus on the perceived health of a politician is not a new or partisan phenomenon. Doubting a politician’s health has long been a political tactic to undermine public trust in their ability to do their job. This method endures because many people truly believe that disability is an inherently limiting characteristic synonymous with incompetence or the untenable, heightened risk of it. This is why perceived threats to the health (e.g., age and communication differences) of celebrities and public officials garner so much media coverage; ableist speculation feels like news because our prejudice completes the story. Normalized bias feels a lot like common sense.

Assuming that someone is inferior, unfit or an avoidable liability because they display attributes associated with a disability is ableist. It is ableist even when we have other, legitimate reasons for finding someone to be unqualified for or bad at their job. It is ableist even when the target of our ableism has done many ableist things. It is wrong to be ableist.

In McConnell’s case, he was reported to require a roughly one- and ten-minute break during two respective press conferences. Press conference delays for politicians are not unprecedented, and yet we do not call for politicians late to those events to resign, if we even call for them to be on time. We should investigate why we feel certain or suspicious of occupational inability when someone requires accommodations for a possible disability but not when someone requires accommodations for heavy traffic. What is special about disability is stigma and the way we use that to justify limiting the opportunities of disabled people. In the pageantry of politics, disabled politicians might be less capable of upholding a nondisabled norm, but they are not necessarily less capable of doing their jobs on that basis.

This holds true for the general disabled population as well. However, most are not as privileged as Mitch McConnell. There are few openly disabled federal lawmakers in comparison to the 14% of people in the U.S. that are disabled. Of those, 78% are not employed or in the workforce, and 27% live in poverty. When we associate disability with incompetence, we assume that the disproportionately adverse living conditions and oppression of disabled people are an inevitable consequence of some essential and individual deficit. Rather, they are a constructed disadvantage enabled by systems that feed on the attitudes and choices we make that do not acknowledge and address its violence. We assume that rampant inequity is normal, and we assume that disabled people are not deserving of opportunities to survive or flourish. We assume wrong.

The beliefs that inform the rhetoric in Mitch McConnell’s case do not merely affect him nor do they only affect our perceptions of disabled people in an employment context. The ideas we have about the employment of disabled people are extensions of a prejudice that intersects with all facets of supporting and harming the disabled community. Assessing disabled people as less worthy of employment in a capitalist society is tantamount to assessing them as less worthy of aid, accommodation and existence. It is a tacit endorsement of the public policies that disable the disabled. It is a tacit endorsement of the political wreckage delivered by Mitch McConnell.

Unlike millions of disabled Americans, Mitch McConnell will be fine when he leaves office. He will receive top-rate medical care, unaffected by the oppressive policy decisions he fights to deliver to more marginalized others. He will not need to worry about Medicaid cutbacks, asset limits, or repeals of the Affordable Healthcare Act, all policies he has supported during his time in the U.S. Senate. If the appearance of disability is enough to persuade voters to elect someone else, Mitch McConnell will be able to retire. He will be able to afford long-term care. Mitch McConnell will be minimally affected by your ableism or his own. When his seat is up for grabs, voters will cast their ballots for his successor with the same prejudice that helped elect him.

While we may view Mitch McConnell as an embodiment of an oppressive system, we must remember that no individual is a system. Mitch McConnell may represent a pernicious and weaponized apathy that informs our system to disadvantage millions, but that system will not resign with Mitch McConnell. That is not a reason to keep him in office, but that is why selling out a whole community for one man is not worth it. Using oppressive weapons to undercut him will just contribute to further marginalization down the line. When we employ the rhetoric and reinforce the prejudice of a broken system to oust a man we see as a conduit of it, we do not injure the system, even if we injure the man. We further construct the system to destroy us instead of itself.

By Rebecca Simmons, Contributing Writer

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