Now we have disabilities, Mr. Cawthorn – it’s okay

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A disability rights attorney approaches one of NC’s newest congressman

Maybe I’m weird for my age, or maybe it’s because I have a background in history, but I’m always excited during election season. No matter who runs, there always seems to be a surprise. That election came as a particularly big surprise in the mountainous region of North Carolina, where Madison Cawthorn was selected to represent the 11th district.

Elected Representative Cawthorn has used a wheelchair after a car accident since he was a teenager. Normally I would be happy about such an election result. People with disabilities make up about 20% of the United States’ population, so we need more representation in elected offices on both sides of the aisle. With all due respect to Mr Cawthorn, however, I am concerned about his ability to represent the disabled community, especially in my own state.

Although partially paralyzed, Cawthorn forgets any notion that he has a disability. Instead, he lies to himself and others, claiming that he has overcome it.

Let me be clear: there is no way to overcome a disability like his. Even though people are working on it, they haven’t found a way to cure paralysis or many other types of disabilities like me. The idea that you can overcome such a disability puts a lot of pressure on other people like him and me. I know this personally because I can’t do a lot of physical movements without help.

I tried to compensate in school by working on getting the best grades to show people that I can do anything intellectually that they can. If you look through my transcripts you will see that I did my first ‘B’ in college. The problem with this perfectionism is that you become unhealthy very quickly. I was in a deep crisis and had to go to counseling every week for a year and a half to process my perfectionist tendencies. Through all of this, I won many awards for academic performance and graduated from Guilford College with summa cum laude.

Let us compare my record with that of Mr. Cawthorn. He didn’t finish college and dropped out after what I read, claiming his poor performance was due to his accident. This terrible excuse created a stereotype that people with disabilities always have problems in school. Indeed, this could reinforce this idea, especially given a low graduation rate of 65.5% for people with disabilities, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Elected Representative Madison Cawthorn

My problems with him don’t stop with training. His behavior doesn’t make much sense to me as he claims he has no disability, but he uses it when it benefits him. At several of his political rallies, including the Republican National Convention, he made it a goal to get himself out of his wheelchair (with the help of several aides) and at the same time to say that he could “stand” for Americans.

Mr. Cawthorn did not invent the trick of covering up his disability to get a political point across. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed polio, but was careful not to downplay its gravity to the American people by trying to appear in public without his presidency. I would hope that now that the Disabled Americans Act was passed over 30 years ago, we don’t have to hide any part of our experience in order to run for office.

Elected Representative Cawthorn has also shown his ignorance of the disabled community and its history by showing a disturbing affinity with Nazi culture. He posed for a “bucket list” photo in front of a German holiday home owned by Hitler and described him as a Führer. Before Hitler ordered the genocide of the Jews, of course, he euthanized people with disabilities, a group he viewed as a lower form of human life.

The program, which cut over 275,000 innocent people in psychiatric hospitals, was called “Action T4”. I firmly believe that if I had lived in this period I would have been a victim of Hitler’s program, and I am not sure that Mr. Cawthorn would have been considered worthy to stay alive.

I don’t usually make it my practice to criticize people’s choice of words because we have free speech in America. If Mr. Cawthorn wants to call himself “wheelchair bound”, that’s up to him. However, I would like to point out that there are other ways to envision wheelchairs and their uses. I prefer the term “wheelchair user” because it is more precise. My wheelchair is a tool that helps me get around, but I wouldn’t say I’m tied to it. It gives me the freedom to venture into places and enjoy the activities that make me happy.

The disabled community is truly one of the most diverse and welcoming communities on this planet and includes people from all walks of life, political beliefs, orientations, classes, colors, etc. I invite Mr. Cawthorn to learn more about this community and develop a better understanding and appreciation from us. By engaging us and lifting us up, he may have a chance to become a leader in this rich community. Even more important, however, is that he can use his visibility and position to shape politics and law and to improve the lives of people with disabilities.

Bryan Dooley is the chairman of the board of directors of Disability Rights North Carolina, a nonprofit advocacy group that first published this article. He blogs on the Observations from Below website.

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