America is a land of infinite graft and unbounded hope. The two are side by side, largely inseparable. Confidence men (and women) live on dark strains of optimism, just as honest laborers think tomorrow will bring rewards. I’ve never been confused about this, at least not since I was in my teens and struggling to navigate high school with a disability. Those were hard days, twenty years before the Americans with Disabilities Act. I learned that good adults can be cruel to a crippled kid if they think no one is watching. Being earnest and confident isn’t always enough to get ahead.
I was lucky. By 18 I knew America could be heartless. I’ve never had much reason to doubt it. But there have been moments when I thought we were getting someplace. The ADA of course. In 1990 both major political parties cooperated to craft a civil rights law that changed the lives of millions upon millions of Americans. Those days are long past. Not long ago at a reception in Washington I heard retired U.S. Senator Robert Dole say that the ADA couldn't happen today. America is now officially pleased to be hard hearted.
I’m in mind of these things because two days ago I saw disabled citizens being yanked from their wheelchairs by police, merely because they were protesting the GOP’s proposed health care reform legislation. They were peaceful but they were inconvenient and they were hauled from their wheel chairs. The optics didn’t matter to Senator Mitch McConnell. Unbounded hope and affirmation are so “last century” and everyone in the Republican Party knows it.
Because I’m not naive and since I long ago stopped confusing disability rights with public benevolence, I wasn’t surprised that powerful men made disabled people bleed on the floor of the Capitol. What did surprise me is how much I’m grieving. When you harm the cripples you’ve boldly decided their lives have no meaning, at least no important significance. One is reminded how Nazi propaganda referred to the disabled as “useless eaters” and there’s no way to blink this away. Disdain as a ploy is both impossible to forget and worse, it’s a message to all who struggle in the United States: your place in this country is now officially erasable.
Intersectionality requires me to say something further—the disabled are not different from people of color, LGBTQ folks, veterans, the elderly, children in poverty. But we are the only minority comprising every marginalized group. The indignities of difference, the lethal nature of outlier citizenship, these I know. I’m not fooled. Yet somehow, seeing wheelchair users thrown to the floor has pulled the last timber of faith from under my feet.
The sunlight of heartfelt dreams has set over our nation and now I’m wondering what the moon will bring.
You can visit Stephen Kuusisto at: www.stephenkuusisto.com