In a Tuesday roundtable discussion with disability rights activists, Vice President Kamala Harris and the activists present introduced themselves by not only stating their pronouns but also by giving a visual description of themselves, including what they were wearing. The vice president said, “I am Kamala Harris, my pronouns are she and her, and I am a woman sitting at the table wearing a blue suit.”
We’ve reached the point where conservatives not only mock people with disabilities but also people who acknowledge people with disabilities.
Providing a visual description has become a standard courtesy to assist blind people. But 32 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, we’ve reached the point where conservatives not only openly mock people with disabilities but also mock people who acknowledge the existence of people with disabilities.
My stomach dropped when I saw that Greg Price, a former Daily Caller journalist, made fun of the language that Harris and those disability rights activists used. When it was pointed out to Price that providing such visual descriptions is meant to assist the visually impaired, he also made fun of that explanation and accused the people around that table of “purposefully excluding” people who are colorblind. As a colorblind person myself, I can say Price’s response is ludicrous. We often need people to tell us what color things are when we can’t tell ourselves.
One right-wing provocateur doing the right-wing provocateur thing is not worth losing sleep over. What was truly unconscionable was seeing the Republican National Committee Research account tweet out the video but, as a Twitter user pointed out, only after it had removed from the original video the captions meant to assist the hearing impaired. Even Representative Adam Kinzinger, one of the two Republican members of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol attack, mocked it.
Conservative senators such as Bob Dole and Orrin Hatch and patrician Republicans such as Lowell Weicker and former President George H.W. Bush saw advancing the rights of people with disabilities as the next frontier of freedom, but they’re long gone. Donald Trump, the last Republican president, was perhaps the most actively ableist president of the last 40 years, reportedly going so far as to ask White House staff not to include wounded veterans in military parades because “nobody wants to see that.” Trump also bungled the response to a pandemic that hit people with disabilities even harder, causing an untold number to needlessly die.
So it came as no surprise that Republicans marked the 32nd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act with hardly any fanfare, but instead attacked the vice president who used language intended to make disabled people feel included. RNC research director Zach Parkinson later tried to clarify that they were making fun of Harris for the fact she “chooses to infantilize the people she’s talking with by announcing her pronouns.”
As for the vice president describing herself as a woman, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, retweeted the RNCR post with the question, “But what is a woman?” He was repeating a question Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., asked then-Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson during the judge’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing. When I asked Cruz about his response to Harris’ introduction, he said he made fun of it “because she was repeating the moronic practice of specifying her pronouns.”
Cruz said he made fun of it “because she was repeating the moronic practice of specifying her pronouns.”
He said, “I have been a longtime advocate of people with disabilities. However, Kamala Harris as part of the woke left like yourself that believes you can’t define what a woman is.” When I asked Cruz if, setting aside the issue of announced pronouns, would describing what one is wearing be a good idea, he answered, “Of course.”
Despite his claim to be a “longtime advocate” for people with disabilities, in 2012, before Cruz was even sworn in as a senator, he lobbied his fellow Republicans to oppose the United States’ entry into a U.N. treaty that raised the standards for how disabled people should be treated. Republicans killed the legislation on the floor of the Senate as Dole, a co-author of the Americans With Disabilities Act, watched.
The responses from Parkinson and Cruz are shallow and dishonest. If all they had wanted to do was mock the vice president for announcing her pronouns, then they could have simply drawn attention to her saying “my pronouns are she and her.” But they didn’t stop the video there. They also drew negative attention to her providing a visual description. It also doesn’t explain why Marco Rubio went on Fox Business and said, “I’m the man on the screen with a gray suit on.”
At the same time, we ought not let Parkinson and Cruz attempt to separate the people in the disability rights movement from the people in the LGBTQ movement. Queer people have a long history of advocating for people with disabilities, going back to when the Gay Men’s Butterfly Brigade supported activists’ sit-ins at a federal building in San Francisco in the 1970s.
In fact, Lydia Brown, one of the people at Tuesday’s roundtable with Harris and a person I interviewed for my book about autism, is nonbinary. So many autistic people identify as a part of the LGBTQ community that when I go to autism events I am only half-joking when I say I am in the minority as a cisgender heterosexual man.
This isn’t to give the vice president a pass. While she was the first presidential candidate to release a disability policy, she angered disability rights activists when she laughed in response to an audience member calling Trump the “r” word. She later apologized. Disability rights activists also worried that the mental health policy she proposed when she was a presidential candidate would have led to more unnecessary institutionalization. I am also on record as saying that the Biden administration’s response to the pandemic is leaving people with disabilities for dead.
One of the people at Tuesday’s roundtable with Harris is nonbinary.
All of this makes conservative bankruptcy on disability even more frustrating. While people with disabilities do need the force of the government to enforce and protect their rights, liberals are often incredibly condescending and act as if disabled people should settle for crumbs. A conservative mindset that believes in using government to empower people with disabilities as promoting individual freedom can be a worthwhile counterweight to liberal paternalistic tendencies.
But conservatives no longer care about that. They would rather “own the libs” than offer a substantive alternative. Democrats have a spotty record defending the rights of disabled people, and knowing that disabled people can’t realistically defect to the Republicans, Democrats have little incentive to do more for them, and disabled people have less incentive to push for more. And if disabled people are afraid to push for what is possible, then the spirit of the ADA is dead.