George F. Will's Disabling Metaphor...

In a column published on May 3, 2017 George F. Will argued that President Donald Trump must have a disability. Here is Will’s opening:

It is urgent for Americans to think and speak clearly about President Trump’s inability to do either. This seems to be not a mere disinclination but a disability. It is not merely the result of intellectual sloth but of an untrained mind bereft of information and married to stratospheric self-confidence.

Mr. Will uses “disability” as a metaphor much like John Dean who famously argued during Watergate that there’s a “cancer on the presidency.”

As a disability rights activist and professor of disability studies I’m troubled by Mr. Will’s sloppy use of disablement to bolster his argument that the president is mentally unfit for his job. Labeling people mentally incompetent is a Stalinist trick and it should never be done lightly. Will has done it very lightly but for effect.

Later in his column Mr. Will asserts he’s not competent to say whether the president is mentally unstable or disabled, but of course it doesn’t matter because he’s already employed disablement for shock value.

I wonder if Mr. Will knows that up until the 1970’s many American cities had “ugly laws” on their books? These laws were intended to keep disabled or disfigured people off the streets. I wonder if he knows that gay people were routinely subjected to electro-shock and lobotomies as corrective measures and without adequate representation? When the poet Allen Ginsberg writes, famously, in “Howl” that he saw the best minds of his generation destroyed, he’s alluding to the corrosive treatment gay people received in psychiatric facilities.

One should never use disability lightly while making an argument. Moreover by asserting Donald J. Trump’s disinclination to avail himself of facts, of study and nuance, and by yoking this to disability George Will does a disservice to real disabled people. In the field of “special” education I love the phrase “presume competence”—not merely because it’s a flag of optimism, it’s what we should all do when meeting anyone. I have several nonspeaking autistic friends who are absolutely brilliant. Their struggles for inclusion are difficult in a culture that broadly imagines them as incompetent because they type to communicate.

I’m no fan of the current president. I’m alarmed by his glib racism, his misogyny and his rhetorically violent disdain for all points of view contradicting his own. In my view he doesn't have any of the requisite characteristics of a national leader. Still I won’t confuse his character flaws with true disability. Doing so is sensational, rash, specious, and it extends the unfortunate and ill informed metaphoric stigma real disabled people must cope with.

Is it possible the president is experiencing senile dementia? Does he have narcissistic personality disorder? Maybe. But I’m betting he doesn’t. My guess is of course of little value. Knowing this I try to be careful. George Will should know better.

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