Thursday, October 4, 2012


... got off to a rousing start last night (yawn!). But one key issue--one attribute--was conspicuously absent: Ann Romney's multiple sclerosis.

In the past, she and hubby Mitt have made a big deal about this.  And lest you think I'm exaggerating the importance of multiple sclerosis in this election, at the Democratic National Convention in August, Michelle Obama made a big point about her father's multiple sclerosis, too!

For a while there it seemed everybody wanted to get on the MS bandwagon. But why? If experience with multiple sclerosis makes one better suited to be president, then I should run for emperor!

Disabling conditions like MS can be profoundly educative, to be sure.  But they hardly make you special, or even presidential material.

I was born with spinal muscular atrophy, a congenital and progressive neuromuscular weakness.  I've never walked or stood, never had much use of my hands--though I was able to feed myself till about 20 years ago.  Now my hand strength is completely gone.

Not that I'm seeking pity.  Nor do I want to engage in a game of "who suffered more"—the Romneys, the Obamas, or myself.  What I am saying, however, is that I know the disability experience, and I know it's not in and of itself grounds for leadership.

Yes, it can make you humble.  It can also make you angry.  It can make you give up, or it can lead you to find an inner strength you never knew you had.  Or it can do none of the above.  There's really no predicting.

No matter how we react to our own disabilities, people call us courageous and inspiring.  They mean well, but there's nothing ennobling about having a disability.  None of us asked for it or had any special qualifications.  It simply happened, and it can happen to anyone.

You never know how well or poorly you will cope when disability enters your life.  But somehow you will cope.  We all do.  We don't honestly have any choice about it.

So are the Romneys or Obamas better people for their encounters with a crippling condition?  Possibly.  But one thing is clear: they didn't survive it because of their grace or strength of character or gumption.  They survived simply because they endured.  In short, they got lucky.

I concede that having personal knowledge of a disability does lend a candidate some common ground with the estimated 50 million Americans who are living with a disability.  That's as far as it goes, though.  It's just not that unusual a thing.

In my experience, the challenges associated with disability come in three varieties: First, and arguably foremost, are the physical/medical struggles.  We do have to fight with our bodies' limitations. 

Second are the societal barriers--the attitudes and obstacles that can isolate people with disabilities from the mainstream.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, there are economic issues.  Disabilities are expensive.  Even leaving out medical bills, a motorized wheelchair can easily cost as much as a new car.  A modified van starts at $50,000.  And if you need full-time personal-attendant care, you'd better have a spare hundred-grand on hand.

The extent to which a disabling condition impacts one's life is directly related to one's financial resources.  If you do have sufficient funds to procure the medical attention and assistive technology you need, your disability can practically be reduced to a mere inconvenience.  So I'm not really sure the Romneys experienced disability the way poorer people do. 

In fact, the most recent census reported that a third of working-age adults with disabilities are unemployed, far higher than any other minority group, and 27 percent live below the poverty line--double the proportion of adults without disabilities.

Granted, neither the Romneys nor the Obamas invented this idea of disability as a kind of badge of courage.  It harks back at least to Franklin Roosevelt.  Whenever the polio-surviving president couldn't hide his inability to walk, he cleverly manipulated his image to turn a presumed liability into an asset.  His disability became a stand-in for the Great Depression itself, and his ability to rise above it--albeit on crutches--a symbol of his mettle and the nation's potential to overcome.

To this day, people with disabilities are called "overcomers" a lot.  I don't know how many times I've been praised for "overcoming" my disability.  It's simply not true.  I haven't overcome it, Mrs. Obama's father didn't overcome his, and even Mrs. Romney--whose MS seems to be in remission--hasn't overcome hers either.  Be inspired if you like, but none of us deserves credit for beating our conditions.  We can't.  Rather, we learn to live with them.

If a candidate truly wants to embrace the disability experience, he or she must understand that we don't want sympathy or blanket admiration.  We want respect, opportunities, a place at the table.  Not because of paternalism or pity, but because of an honest, realistic, un-sentimental understanding of what living with a disability is really like.  And maybe it's not so different from what life is like for everybody else.