She Got Arrested Protesting Trumpcare: Interview With Disability Rights Activist Judith Heumann

She Got Arrested Protesting Trumpcare: Interview With Disability Rights Activist Judith Heumann
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Katherine Salinas

Judy Heumann was arrested on Tuesday, July 25. The official charge was “crowding, obstructing or incommoding.” This charge is a violation of the District of Columbia Code § 22-1307. It falls under Chapter 13, Disturbances of the Public Peace. What’s so interesting about this particular arrest? Well, it occurred in the Philip A. Hart Senate Building, where Heumann, who gets around in a wheelchair, and her fellow disability rights activists were protesting the Republican plan to repeal Obamacare. She was kind enough to speak to me about her arrest, about health care in the United States in general, and about her years as an activist on behalf of those with disabilities.

First, a bit of background about this lifelong fighter for justice and equality. Judy was born in Brooklyn in 1947, and contracted polio at 18 months old. At that time, there were no laws banning discrimination against people with disabilities. At the federal level, the Americans with Disabilities Act was not enacted until 1990. She told me about her experience of going to school at age 5, and being denied entry because she was disabled. The city decided that its obligation to her would be satisfied if a teacher came to her home twice a week, once for one hour, and another time for an hour and a half. Finally, when she reached fourth grade, she was able to attend school thanks to her mother’s advocacy, but she was placed in special education classes that she said “in no way shape or form” provided the academic environment she or other kids like her needed.

There were no laws that ensured equal access to education for disabled kids, the education through which they could gain the skills necessary to participate in society to their full potential. The disability rights movement, of which Judy has been a vital part for almost five decades, has made tremendous progress in achieving equal rights, although work still remains.

Judy worked for the Clinton administration from 1993 to 2001 as assistant secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services in the State Department Department of Education. In 2010, she joined the Obama Administration as special advisor on disability rights for the State Department. She stated that both administrations “viewed disability as a civil rights issue, took it seriously, and made meaningful appointments in many positions around government of disabled individuals.”

Back to this summer: While the Senate was debating various options to take health care away from millions of Americans in order to cut taxes for millionaires, Judy participated in a march from the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Washington, DC, to the Capitol. The march was organized by the National Council on Independent Living (NCIL) and ADAPT, which defines itself as “a national grass-roots community that organizes disability rights activists to engage in nonviolent direct action, including civil disobedience, to assure the civil and human rights of people with disabilities to live in freedom.” After the march ended, a good number of the participants joined together for a separate rally/demonstration in the Senate’s Hart Building. That’s where things got even more interesting.

A number of senators and representatives spoke at the rally, including Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. The demonstrators stayed in the main area of the Hart Building and there was “a lot of chanting going on.” Judy told me that they did not obstruct the entire area, and that people could certainly move around and get where they needed to go. She also stated that the Capitol Police who came over to the demonstrators were “very nice.” After being informed by the police that they would be arrested only if they stayed, some of the demonstrators left, but Judy and a number of others chose to remain. At that point they were brought over to another nearby area and issued tickets by officers. Sen. Tammy Duckworth also stayed and addressed the activists who had been arrested.

About 50 hours later, the last of the Trumpcare options was defeated on the Senate floor when John McCain joined Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins, as well as all 48 Democratic senators, in voting down the skinny repeal. Judy Heumann had fought on behalf of tens of millions, and had won.

Judy explained that, having worked in government for the past quarter century or so, this was the first time in many years she’d been able to participate in that kind of public “democratic activity.” She added that it was: “very important for me to be able to be with so many people who clearly are affected by health care legislation in many different ways, because many of the people there have significant disabilities and are on Medicaid … Medicaid caps and cuts would very much adversely affect their ability to live in the community … to live a life where having a disability isn’t a negative.” She added: “it’s not our disability, it’s the policies and practices that are in place that limit our ability to be equal members of society.”

Judy also talked about other impressive, multi-day demonstrations ADAPT has organized, including ones that saw people sleeping overnight at various legislative offices in protest. There have been visits to various senators’ offices, including those of Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell. A few weeks ago ADAPT held a die-in at his office that led to arrests. There were demonstrations at Sen. Cory Gardner’s office in Colorado, and Sen. Pat Toomey’s in Pennsylvania.

Judy called the protest efforts “empowering,” and noted: “This was only one part of a much bigger set of activities going on for a while.” Furthermore, she explained: “what was exciting is … this is an issue that’s not just focusing on disabled people, it’s focused on a much broader population. People are looking at the efforts that the disability community has been embarking on in a different way.”

I asked Judy what she would say to Mitch McConnell about health care if she could talk to him directly. She’d tell him to “work in a bipartisan manner, to make appropriate changes that don’t adversely affect people who are currently receiving benefits that they previously didn’t have.” She continued: “health care is pivotal not only to the welfare of our country but also to the dignity of individuals. I find it really unfortunate that he doesn’t understand the needs of his constituents in Kentucky who are poor and have disabilities, who are middle class people who haven’t had health care before.”

Although McConnell, a senior citizen, is eligible for Medicare, Judy pointed out how difficult it would likely be for him to get health coverage if he were, say, age 64: “At his age I’m sure he has some pre-existing conditions. He should go out into the market and try to get insured as an older individual with pre-existing conditions and see what he would get.” Finally, she noted, “The need to walk in people’s shoes is something that I think he clearly has forgotten. Or rolling in people’s wheelchairs.” I especially liked that last part.

We also talked about how other countries have truly universal coverage guarantees. Judy urged Americans to demand more of the news media, and said, “We need to be more informed about health care in other countries.” She noted that people who visit the U.S. are completely and totally perplexed by our system, and added, “We need to much more vividly explain to people, if you lived in [another advanced country], this is what health care would like: a) you would have health care, that’s the big thing, you would have health care. This discussion needs to be more simplistic and deeper so that people can really make informed decisions. We spend more money per capita and have poorer outcomes than many [other similar] countries. Why?” Going forward, she declared, “We need to see health care as a right, and look at a single-payer option.”

Looking back at the recent victory in the Senate, Judy commented on the man for whom Trumpcare is named: “At the end of the day, Trump and his family have health care.” She pointed out that he had promised to “produce a bill that was going to be better” than what we currently have, which clearly did not happen. She also called Trump “very disingenuous,” and observed “some of his supporters are beginning to look at, in the area of health care, how these changes are going to adversely affect them on an individual basis.” One can only hope that she’s right about that.

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