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The Non-Politics of Disability

ADA Sign Depot

January 19, 2017

ADA Sign Depot

Politics of Disability

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Source: Disability is a weekly series of essays, art and opinion by and about people living with disabilities. The entire series can be found here.

“Disability…is fundamentally a public concern, affecting everyone directly or indirectly and revealing our obligations to one another as members of a democratic society. Issues of accessibility can be fully addressed only through public institutions and collective effort. For the disability community, there is no answer but politics.”

The morning after Donald J. Trump’s election victory I posted a status update on Facebook that drew praise from both my liberal and conservative social media friends, and revealed something I’d thought impossible — a limit to his stalwart supporters’ loyalty. The post wasn’t exactly neutral; I lamented what Mr. Trump’s election means to me, a wheelchair user, and recalled the boorish example he set in mocking Serge Kovaleski, the Times reporter, who has a congenital joint disorder.

My partisan posture was clear, but still, the post elicited warm messages of encouragement from even strident Trump supporters. One response was revealing: A friend claimed that the president-elect would do wonders for the country, even as she wholeheartedly denounced him on this issue. (For the record, Kovaleski does not consider himself to be disabled.)

That a statement on disability garnered sympathy from across the political spectrum was unsurprising, at least to me. I’ve grown used to my wheelchair trumping (forgive me) other political and moral concerns. Rarely, if ever, do people contest my claims that we must do more for those with disabilities: Greater access? Better employment training? More flexible school curriculums?

“Of course!” they invariably respond. “Who could argue with that?”

Disability rights enjoy a seemingly ironclad moral consensus, an ostensible unanimity that is striking given America’s entrenched polarization and the antagonism surrounding other identity movements. Many are wary of L.G.B.T. rights or the Black Lives Matter movement, but it seems beyond the pale — almost cruel — to oppose disability rights. Nobody wants to be anti-disability.

Initially, this harmony would seem helpful. Free from partisan discord, advancements for the approximately 57 million Americans with disabilities should be easier to achieve, borne aloft by the wings of certain progress. Why, then, do rampant unemployment and educational disparities endure, and why does success remain the exception?

I think part of the reason is the insulation of our pro-disabled political consensus. Its logic is rooted not in any deep belief in the equal worth of citizens with disabilities, but rather in a general aversion to disability. This is related to the charity impulse that has always surrounded disability — and has constrained liberation efforts by assuming that inequities are unfortunate but natural realities to be mitigated through compassion, rather than politically structured injustices. There is also a profound lack of disabled people in the public sphere, meaning any substantive discussion that does occur is extremely rare.

I suspect many people I talk to about disability maintain an implicit hope that, if they nod as vigorously as possible, the issue will simply go away. In this way, support for disability rights is similar to the act of expressing perfunctory thanks to military veterans. It temporarily absolves us of the responsibility to address the heart of the matter.

Moreover, the apparent moral consensus may be mostly superficial. In trying to enact accessibility, disability advocates encounter increasing resistance as the effort and costs involved in proposals come closer to being realized. (Consider the neighborhood store that decides it’s just too costly to install a ramp, or the community lecture that excludes deaf attendees by refusing to hire a sign-language interpreter.)

Instead of facilitating change, false unity actually restrains change. It stifles the more substantive conversations true progress requires. And our inability to speak honestly — and contentiously — about disability shows how the politics of disability is in this sense non-political. We are the worse for it.

In addition to greater participation in the public sphere, true progress for citizens with disabilities will require a willingness to confront the issues head-on, even when — especially when — citizens disagree on competing solutions. We must politicize disability — not in the cable-news, grandstanding kind of way, but in the term’s more formal sense.

The work of the Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe can help illuminate what’s at stake. Mouffe begins with the premise that human relations are inherently antagonistic: Political change always requires controversial transfers in power or prestige, and it is an illusion to imagine politics without confrontation. Per this “agonistic” conception of democracy, a healthy political order is one that prefers vigorous, good-faith argumentation to complacent consensus.

Until we publicly recognize real disagreements surrounding disability and accessibility, Mouffe would insist, we are doomed to a vacuous, empty debate that is neither political nor productive.

Recall the Kovaleski incident. I’m not suggesting that the abhorrence of Mr. Trump’s actions is open to legitimate questioning. But in their forcefully reassuring comments and messages, my friends prevented any serious discussion of disability at the level where reasonable disagreement does exist. Where will the money come from to fund disability employment schemes? How do we even define “disability”? Despite — and, I would argue, partly because of — the broad condemnation of Mr. Trump for his insensitivity, there was no substantive public discussion of such issues.

You may be thinking, haven’t we had enough politics lately? Maybe it’s a blessing that disability isn’t as political as it might be; it avoids the drama and messiness that now seem to define our common life.

Avoiding politics might be possible if disability were an exclusively private affair. But it is fundamentally a public concern, affecting everyone directly or indirectly and revealing our obligations to one another as members of a democratic society. Issues of accessibility can be fully addressed only through public institutions and collective effort. For the disability community, there is no answer but politics.

But politics need not be repulsive. That’s the beauty of Mouffe’s agonism: By legitimating clashing arguments and welcoming them into the political fold, unproductive antagonism becomes constructive, and compromises emerge.

And success here could yield broader insights. I believe there is great potential for a new disability politics to provide a positive blueprint for dealing with our partisan divide and other identity issues that goes beyond the unhelpful political correctness frame. Thinking seriously about precisely why disability maintains a moral consensus might allow us to harness any advantages (e.g. a common moral vocabulary) while discarding what’s unhelpful. What if we could construct a model of politicization that doesn’t entail bitter partisanship, and rescue authentic disagreement from stultifying consensus? The resulting practices and mentalities could be revolutionary for disability politics, and for democracy itself.

I’m still thinking through how this might work, and I recognize that any such efforts will require real trade-offs and difficult conversations. Politics — when put into action — always does.

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