The White House held a ceremony last week to honor the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes who competed in the 2018 Winter Games. It should have been a time to celebrate the athletes’ achievements; instead, it perpetuated an all-too-familiar pattern of our president exhibiting utter disregard for people with disabilities.
“What happened with the Paralympics was so incredible and so inspiring to me,” President Donald Trump remarked during the ceremony as Olympic and Paralympic athletes surrounded him. “And I watched — it’s a little tough to watch too much, but I watched as much as I could.”
Some have said the president’s remarks were most likely in reference to his demanding schedule and not meant as a slight against the Paralympians. However, given that Trump spends four to eight hours a day watching television, per The New York Times, it’s hard to believe he didn’t have time to watch the games.
And even if Trump didn’t have such a propensity for television consumption, I still wouldn’t buy the idea his comments were well-intentioned. Long before Trump took office, I worried deeply about what his presidency would mean for people like me: people with disabilities.
Trump is no stranger to ableism. From mocking a reporter who has the same disability as I do to repeatedly coming under legal fire because his properties violate the Americans with Disabilities Act, Trump has long demonstrated his disdain for people with disabilities. And since taking office, the president — and the GOP writ large — have delivered incessant and appalling attacks on the rights of people with disabilities.
Last summer, the disability community gained national attention for successfully preventing the GOP’s repeated attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. For people with disabilities, stopping the repeal of the ACA — which would have resulted in substantial cuts to Medicaid — was truly a matter of life and death. My life would be completely upended if I were to lose Medicaid coverage because it is the only health insurance that covers personal care assistant services. Without these in-home supports, I would not be able to live on my own or work. Rather than live my life as a contributing member of society, I would be forced to live it out in an institution.
While insulting people with disabilities is never acceptable, continuous assaults on policies that directly affect our lives are far worse.
The effort to cut necessary services like Medicaid is only one of the countless ways Trump has disrupted the lives of the 56 million people in the United States who have a disability. The Department of Justice’s apparent disregard of the ADA and other civil rights laws is yet another example of how things are only getting worse for people with disabilities. In December, the DOJ rescinded long-awaited Obama-era ADA regulations that would have improved accessibility for people with disabilities.
Likewise, the Trump administration’s proposed budgets would slash funding for offices that enforce civil rights at the DOJ, the Department of Education and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. This unambiguously proves that enforcing the rights of people with disabilities and others from marginalized communities is no longer a priority for our current administration.
Even education for students with disabilities is not safe while Trump is president. Betsy DeVos, Trump’s secretary of education, has demonstrated little understanding of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the 43-year-old federal law that guarantees people with disabilities the right to a free and appropriate public education. DeVos’ staunch support of increasing private school vouchers has elicited alarm among families and disability advocates who fear students with disabilities will have even fewer educational opportunities if public schools receive less funding.
Trump’s comment about the Paralympics drew widespread criticism. U.S. figure skater Adam Rippon, one of many Olympians who chose to skip the White House ceremony, responded to Trump’s comments on Twitter:
Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), a disabled veteran, also responded to Trump’s disparaging remarks on Twitter:
Another Twitter user tweeted at Trump: “You publicly grimaced when talking about the Paralympics!”
I am thrilled Trump’s comments have been met with outrage, but it’s important for people to understand that his remarks are part of a long and shocking history of disregard for people with disabilities.
While insulting people with disabilities is never acceptable, continuous assaults on policies that directly affect our lives are far worse. Nondisabled people must recognize what people with disabilities have known all along: Trump is dangerous, and his attacks on our rights must be stopped.
I’ll never know for certain whether Trump intended to insult people with disabilities with his inappropriate comments about the Paralympics. Given his history of ableism and disregard for people with disabilities, I won’t be giving him the benefit of the doubt.
Robyn Powell is a proud disabled woman as well as an attorney, scholar and writer.