Ableism in the general election

Ava Liponis, Columnist

In the wake of the first 2020 Presidential Debate and President Trump’s positive COVID-19 test, we have seen heightened scrutiny placed on both candidates’ mental and physical health and their “fitness” for office. 

Instead of making an argument that either of them are unqualified, lack leadership skills or lack moral fiber, it’s easier for people to sink into ableist mindsets when looking for ways to insult presidential candidates. In fact, most modern day insults are rooted in ableism — but that isn’t a good excuse to weaponize disability in order to keep Trump or Biden out of office. There should be no pointing fingers here. Both the right and the left are wildly guilty of ableism. This is explicit in insults like “Slow Joe” and implicit in psychoanalytical evaluations of Trump’s supposed personality disorders.

Joe Biden received a lot of criticism and special attention from the Trump campaign for using a teleprompter before answering a question from an AFL-CIO representative; Biden even asked for a teleprompter for one of his debates. Conservative Twitter had a field day, calling him “Slow Joe,” claiming it was representative of mental inadequacy and that he was clearly too old and senile to be fit for the presidency. While Joe Biden has been very open about his stutter, people are rarely open to making disability accommodations in politics, especially in presidential politics.

July 2019, Fox News edited together moments when Biden stuttered, and host Steve Hilton narrated: “As the right words struggled to make that perilous journey from Joe Biden’s brain to Joe Biden’s mouth, half the time he just seemed to give up with this somewhat tragic and limp admission of defeat.” A book titled “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump” included 27 psychiatrists and mental health experts who collectively deemed Trump’s mental state a dangerous threat to the nation, despite none of them having ever examined him personally.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a proud #SettleforBiden supporter, but this focus on mental and physical “fitness” for the presidential office has serious implications for disabled folks. We live in a strict social meritocracy that dictates our ideas of what a president should look like and what they should be capable of, and this skews disabled people out of political spaces where they are needed. What will happen to disabled politicians of the future whose political enemies have seen that it’s not only fair game, but totally normal, to cash in on physiological and psychological differences?

We are in desperate need of a shift away from language that explicitly casts doubt on the capabilities of disabled individuals, and instead use rhetoric that acknowledges the merit and value of their hard-earned experiences. The presidency is arguably the most prestigious position in the nation, but impugning Trump or Biden’s mental or physical fitness is not a political strategy. Exposing and exploiting someone’s disability has devastating effects on disabled individuals in establishing a standard of ideal fitness for a particular position. It undermines the effectiveness of disabled leaders in politics, business, medicine and healthcare in countless other fields. It presents disability as incompatible with our projections of leadership.