The Invisible Woman

As I watched the opening days of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, I was struck by the stark contrast in tone between it and last week’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

Despite the sometimes-acrimonious conflict between Clinton’s delegates and Sander’s supporters, a sign of vibrant and democratic debate regardless of what the various pundits might suggest, there was still strong evidence of unity among the Democrats of all levels. You only need contrast, for example, the unequivocal endorsement of Hillary Clinton by Bernie Sanders and his various lieutenants with the openly contemptuous speech of Republican also-ran Ted Cruz to see the difference.

Of course, just like the Republican Convention, many of the speeches were full of hyperbole, half-truths, or outright distortions. One need only read the analyses of independent organizations like Politifact to see that. Nevertheless, the opening night of the convention made for good entertainment.

The star power on display the first night of the convention was also impressive, with powerhouse progressives like Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren giving rousing speeches that outlined the Democratic Platform and its policy goals while condemning the fear-mongering and divisiveness of the Trump campaign.

However, while many in the media swooned over the powerful and positive message given by First Lady Michelle Obama, there was one speech in particular that stood out to me: the speech given by disability rights advocate Anastasia Somoza.

Diagnosed with cerebral palsy and spastic quadriplegia at birth, Ms. Somoza first rose to national prominence in 1993 when, at the age of nine, she appeared on television with then-President Bill Clinton to call for integration of children with disabilities into general education classrooms. As a result of her advocacy and President Clinton’s intervention, Anastasia and her twin sister Alba (who suffers from the same condition) were the first significantly disabled students to be enrolled in a mainstream New York City public school.

Since then, Ms. Somoza has graduated with degrees from such top universities as Georgetown and the London School of Economics, taken a position with Shield Institute (an organization that supports those with intellectual and developmental disabilities to live independently), and worked with the Clinton Foundation on efforts to provide parents in low- and middle-income countries with the education and resources they need to care for disabled children.

Although she was speaking on the 26th anniversary of Americans with Disabilities Act, the landmark civil rights law that prohibits public discrimination against anyone with a physical or mental disability, Anastasia described some of the challenges of living, “in a country where 56 million Americans with disabilities so often feel invisible.”

I’m not sure whether or not Ms. Somoza’s complaint was a direct allusion to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the mid-century novel about race whose protagonist is similarly invisible because of the refusal of others to see him, but the social invisibility of which she speaks is but one example of the overt and covert discrimination which those with disabilities experience every day.

Ask any of your friends or colleagues living with a disability and they will undoubtedly tell you of illegally occupied handicapped parking spaces, quotas on the number of wheelchairs allowed onto buses, airplanes or concert venues, and the quickly averted gaze of store clerks or taxi cab drivers who do not know how to deal with those with special needs. Businesses often refuse to hire the disabled for similar reasons. Nearly 80% of those living with disabilities do not participate in the workforce. When they do, they face a wage gap that exceeds that faced by women or ethnic minorities.

Many well-intentioned able-bodied individuals are often guilty of this social blindness, be it the result of misguided respect, embarrassment, repugnance or fear. Others are outwardly dismissive or hostile towards those with disabilities, including GOP Presidential Candidate Donald Trump, who openly mocked a disabled New York Times reporter at a campaign rally last November. Mr. Trump has yet to apologize for his infantile mockery, and few in the Republican Party have taken him to task for this behavior (including former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who is herself the mother of a disabled son and who has publicly admonished political opponents for similar insults in the past).

When we allow people to get away with things like this – by looking the other way when they make fun of someone’s disability, by failing to speak up when someone uses a racial epithet or calls someone a queer or a faggot – we are equally guilty in creating a social climate that values the lives of some people more than it values the lives of others. And we’ve already seen through millennia of history what that can lead to.

And for those of you who do not think that atrocities like the Holocaust, the Armenian and Rwandan genocide, or the Cherokee Trail of Tears can happen again, you need only open today’s newspaper. The very morning after Ms. Somoza spoke on the floor of the Democratic National Convention, 19 people at a facility for the disabled in Japan were stabbed to death by a man who claimed that, “I envision a world where a person with multiple disabilities can be euthanized … I believe there is still no answer about the way of life for individuals with multiple disabilities. The disabled can only create misery.”

Treating those living with disabilities respectfully isn’t about political correctness, it’s about human decency. It’s about publicly recognizing the dignity of everyone and the value of each and every life, and celebrating the tenacity and courage of women and men like Ms. Somoza. There is no shame in being disabled … the shame lies only with those who fail to recognize that.

[This blog entry was originally presented as an oral commentary on Northeast Public Radio on July 26, 2016, and is available on the WAMC website.]


About Sean Philpott-Jones

A public health researcher and ethicist by training, Sean holds advanced degrees in microbiology, medical anthropology, and bioethics. He is currently Chair of the Bioethics Department at Clarkson University's Capital Region Campus and Director of the Bioethics Program of Clarkson University-Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and Director of two Fogarty-funded programs to provide research ethics education in Eastern Europe and in the Caribbean Basin. Until his term expired in August 2012, he served as Chair of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Human Studies Review Board, an advisory panel that reviews the scientific and ethical aspects of research involving human participants submitted to the EPA for regulatory purposes.
This entry was posted in Disability, Discrimination, Media, Policy, Politics, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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