Feb 282012

Harold Pollack has a great op-ed in the Times criticizing social conservatives for dragging people with disabilities into the latest round of the never-ending culture wars. He singles out Rick Santorum and Sarah Palin for their absurd claims that health care reform would lead to the forced euthanasia of people with disabilities. He then makes the case that such rhetoric jeopardizes the longstanding bipartisan cooperation that made landmark laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act possible.

I’ve written before about conservatives’ recent tendency to politicize people with disabilities for their own reactionary purposes. What upsets me most about comments like those Pollack cites is their breathtaking cynicism. Not only is the Affordable Care Act lacking any implicit or explicit reference to death panels, but it includes many provisions that will make life better for people with disabilities. Insurance companies will no longer be able to turn away families because someone has a disabling condition. More people with disabilities will be eligible for Medicaid without being forced to surrender their savings. States will have more flexibility to provide personal care services to people with disabilities. But since when have people like Santorum and Palin demonstrated any willingness to frame their arguments using facts?

Conservatives make these statements freely because they view us as a voiceless, helpless bunch who won’t call them out on their ravings. And that brings me to another frustration. I remember when plenty of disability activists were ready to burn Jerry Lewis’ house down when he made some offhandedly ignorant comments about disability. But the disability community has been weirdly reluctant to challenge these far more pernicious remarks from people who could actually be in a position to, you know, make policy. Have we become so fearfully protective of the gains we’ve made that we simply hunker down and wait for the craziness to blow over? If so, we’ve already lost. Keeping our silence now makes it all the easier for a future, more electable version of Santorum or Palin to make us unwilling puppets in their noble quest to “restore” America. And then we really will be fighting a rear-guard action to preserve our basic dignity and independence.

The only way to stop exploitation is to call it out for what it is. Other marginalized groups have learned this lesson well and do not hesitate to raise raucous hell when an elected official says something stupid. The disability community, once equally vocal ,has grown timid and cautious. It’s great that advocates like Pollack are willing to write op-ed pieces in the Times on our behalf, but we need to join the fray. The next time Santorum or another politician tries to portray hiimself/herself as the disability community’s white knight, we need to call shenanigans by blogging, tweeting, Facebooking, writing letters to the editor, and generally speaking the fuck up. We’ve come too far to let ourselves be used in a fight in which we have so much to lose.

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