I have had multiple sclerosis for over twenty years and used a wheelchair for the past eleven. So I was heartened to see the just-released ad, sponsored by Priorities USA, about Donald Trump’s reprehensible mocking attitude toward people with disabilities. In the 60-second ad, a couple – Chris and Lauren Glaros of Columbia, Ohio -- talk about their daughter, Grace, who suffers from spina bifida and uses a wheelchair, and who is never mocked by her young classmates. The mother says, “when I saw an adult (Trump) mock a person with a disability, I was just shocked.” It “showed us his soul” says the father.
I agree. I have lived much of my life with a disability. Before I needed a wheelchair, I used a walker; before that, a cane; and before that I walked with a lopsided gait. I can’t ever remember anyone making fun of my disability. The closest thing to mocking that happens is when young children come up to me on the street and say: “Why can’t you walk? I can walk.” I try not to take offense and to instead use these unsolicited interactions as teachable moments.
Generally, I find that the people I encounter daily treat me with support and respect. Mostly people go out of their way to open doors for me. And people that know me and know that I have tried to live a full life as a lawyer in spite of my disability, express admiration. I have felt sheltered from ridicule.
So I was astounded when I saw the videos of Donald Trump mocking Serge Kovaleski, the New York Times reporter with a congenital condition called arthrogryposis, which limits flexibility in his arms. As is widely known by now, last November, at a campaign rally in South Carolina, Trump went out of his way to make fun of the reporter.
“Now the poor guy, you ought to see this guy,” Trump said, referring to Kovaleski, before jerking his arms around awkwardly and holding his right hand at an angle.
Like me, I’m sure that Kovaleski believed that he too was protected from derision. After all, he was a highly-respected veteran investigative reporter who was part of a team that won the New York Times a Pulitzer Prize for its investigation of the Eliot Spitzer prostitution scandal. And although Trump tried to claim he didn’t know Kovaleski had a disability, the reporter said in an interview in The Times that he and Mr. Trump “were on a first-name basis for years.” Kovaleski had interviewed the presidential candidate in person in his office when he was a reality star/real estate magnate and talked to him at press conferences at least a dozen times. But neither Kovaleski’s accomplishments nor Trump’s knowledge of him—kept the candidate from scornfully imitating the reporter’s arm movements on national television.
Donald Trump makes fun of everybody. Every day during the campaign and even now after he has emerged victorious to the astonishment and horror of many, he replaces his own headlines by demonizing a different group or individual than he did the day before. This means that one can forget who he has demeaned from one day to the next; that each act that shows the evil soul of the man who would be president can be buried by the subsequent one. I am thankful that Priorities USA is resurrecting Trump’s derision of a reporter with a disability, because it reminds people of how dangerous he is.
Until his insults rested on people like me, I admit that I was nonchalant about them. I thought that Trump’s claims at the beginning of his campaign that Mexicans are rapists and that illegal immigrants are responsible for most of the crime in this country were ridiculous. Although I knew that statements like that can rally an audience, I had no idea that such claims would catch fire and help propel him to success Nor was I too concerned when he launched the unconstitutional idea of a database for Muslims after the Paris and San Bernadino attacks . We put the Japanese in internment camps a long time ago—it could never happen again. Trump’s derogatory comments about women did not alarm me. I knew that even today, there are still Americans who view women as second-class citizens.
I’m ashamed that before it was personal, I didn’t realize the significance of what he was doing and, more importantly, of the fact that throngs of Americans would be enthusiastically drawn to his deprecating bluster. When his disdain was thrown at a person with a disability, I saw it for the first time. He has woken up the playground bully and his entourage. He has stirred up cruel instincts that had been sleeping since their youth in far too many people. Disability can make someone appear weak and that is what ignites a bully, who then rallies others. I may feel protected from attack but I should know better. Throughout history, bullies have attracted wide appeal by doing much worse to those perceived as being vulnerable than make mocking speeches.
I remember a middle-school classmate named Jimmy whose cheeks were unusually red and puffy, who stuttered, and who was very large. He would try to talk to us girls—and whenever he did we would make disgusted faces, say “ewww—cooties!” and run away. The fact that I was part of that tormenting haunts me to this day. I also remember a short, pudgy bully named Billy who strutted around school with his buddies in search of Jimmy and other vulnerable souls just so he could mock them and win the admiration of the audience of teenagers that always surrounded him in the hallways or in the schoolyard.
Though we still have a long way to go, conditions are much better for the inclusion of people with disabilities in all walks of life than they were when the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed 25 years ago. But ironically, Trump’s attacks on the apparently defenseless have been successful – at least in terms of helping him win the GOP nomination.
The playground bully is back. The fact that he wants to lead this nation and has rallied an enthusiastic following is horrifying. But most Americans – not only people with disabilities and their families – don’t approve of such brutish behavior and outrageous bigotry, as Trump will learn in November.
Carol R. Steinberg is an attorney, writer, and disability activist in Boston.