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Disability Rights Advocates Get Mixed Bag in Election

While Trump mocked reporter’s disability, more lawmakers living with disabilities were elected

Sen.-elect Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, is one of two disabled veterans to win elections this year. The other is Rep.-elect Brian Mast of Florida. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen.-elect Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, is one of two disabled veterans to win elections this year. The other is Rep.-elect Brian Mast of Florida. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

While disability rights activists are disappointed by a newly elected president who once openly mocked a reporter’s disability, they are heartened that there are now more people who live with disabilities in Congress.

President-elect Donald Trump came under fire last year when he mocked Serge Kovaleski, a reporter who has arthrogryposis, which limits the functioning of his joints. 

“Trump’s mockery of the reporter Serge Kovaleski is just the tip of the ableist iceberg,” said Alice Wong, founder and project coordinator for the Disability Visibility Project. 

Trump also espoused language hinting that vaccines cause autism, writing on Twitter that doctors should give smaller doses of vaccines even though the medical community has long debunked the link between vaccines and autism.

Trump even promoted anti-vaccine theories during the second Republican primary debate, saying that autism has become “an epidemic.”

“Any president who doesn’t believe in science is dangerous — I am concerned about funding for public health, medical and scientific research that will impact all people,” Wong said in an email.

Ari Ne’eman, president of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, also expressed alarm at Trump’s comments.

“These comments by the president-elect are profoundly unfortunate,” he said. “They betray a fundamental ignorance.”

Wong said the primary concern is Trump’s proposed repeal of the 2010 health care law. 

“It’s not an exaggeration when disabled people have said they will die if the [Affordable Care Act] is repealed,” Wong said. “Insurers will be able to reject people with pre-existing conditions and poor people will be unable to access health care without Medicaid expansions.”

Ne’eman also had concerns about Trump’s proposal to turn Medicaid into a block grant program, which he is worried could lead to a reduction in benefits.

“If Trump follows through on his stated attempt to propose a block grant on Medicaid, we are going to need strong allies in Congress,” he said.

The American Association of People with Disabilities was more reserved in its response to an inquiry from Roll Call.

“AAPD will be watching the Trump administration as we would watch the administration of any incoming president to ensure that their policies are inclusive of people with disabilities and that existing disability rights laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act are protected,” Zach Baldwin, director of outreach, said in a statement. 

The organization also noted that Trump responded to its questionnaire, but many of his answers were vague.

While Trump’s election has aroused concerns, there is encouragement as well since there will be more people living with disabilities in the 115th Congress.

Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth, who lost both of legs serving in Iraq, is the incoming senator from Illinois after beating her Republican opponent Sen. Mark S. Kirk, who himself also uses a wheelchair after suffering a stroke.

In addition, Republican Brian Mast, who lost both legs while serving in Afghanistan, is the congressman-elect for Florida’s 18th District.

“There could be little that’s more important,” Mast said of representing veterans with disabilities.

He said that, oddly enough, because his injury is visible, it makes it easier for people to empathize.

“They can look at me and understand me,” he said, as opposed to veterans with invisible disabilities like traumatic brain injuries. “That also classifies them as a disabled veteran.” 

Mast is a Trump supporter and said the president-elect’s support for veteran care contrasted with Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.

New Hampshire Democratic Sen.-elect Maggie Hassan’s son Ben has cerebral palsy and was featured in an ad in which Hassan said her son’s diagnosis was a reason she got involved in politics.

Neither Hassan nor Duckworth were available to comment.

Wong said the newly elected lawmakers should “continue to engage and listen to people with disabilities. Share what you know to your nondisabled colleagues in Congress, and whenever possible support the hiring and appointment of qualified disabled people in government.”

Similarly, the AAPD statement praised the three lawmakers’ election which it said is “a sign that some of the attitudinal barriers and stigmas around people with disabilities are beginning to erode.”  

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