Beyond Outrage: Civil Rights, Not Pity

Arlene Mayerson, Directing Attorney, Disability Rights Eduction and Defense Fund

Arlene Mayerson, Directing Attorney, Disability Rights Eduction and Defense Fund

I have been thinking a lot about how outraged people and the media are about Donald Trump’s mocking of Serge Kovaleski, a disabled reporter. Polls show that this mockery is the most unpopular of all of Trump’s outrageous racist, sexist, xenophobic, bullying, insulting statements and portrayals. As a disability rights lawyer for the last almost 40 years, I have been pondering this reaction. I am wondering how this reaction relates to the aims of the disability rights movement to fight against discrimination, segregation and exclusion. 

No doubt that Trump’s mocking arm movements and disgusted facial expression is a prime example of bullying. And no doubt that bullying is a major problem for people with disabilities. But I feel like everyone has jumped on this incident as a breach of decorum (don't stare, don't make fun), but no one is talking about it from a policy perspective. This type of mocking is not just a matter of manners, decorum and crossing lines, but has real and terrible policy implications. 

Donald Trump mocks Serge Kovaleski

Donald Trump mocks Serge Kovaleski

I don't think people or the media are making the policy connections about this the way we do for racist and sexist comments. We care about Trump’s characterization of Mexican immigrants because it has real consequences for immigration reform and the civil rights of Mexican Americans. We know that the gross remarks about women are reflected in denying women the right to choose and unequal pay for equal work. But I don’t think that people and the media know that degrading images of people with disabilities affects public policies that the disability rights movement has fought decades to achieve.

One of the first briefs that I wrote to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1984 cited a study that found there was a direct correlation between the people that pity blind people and those that espoused segregation.[1] For this reason, a mere taboo against making fun of people with disabilities does not translate into inclusive public policies based on principles of equality.

Trump’s mocking is not just the breaking of a taboo but represents a very real threat to disability civil rights. De-institutionalization is at stake. Employment is at stake.

Trump’s mocking of Serge’s disability is not only about incivility and bullying, which are bad enough. These attitudes about disability, result in a backlash against the political struggle for equal rights and dignity of people with disability. Trump’s mockery not only shows a level of disregard and cluelessness, it threatens four decades of hard-won political gains in the struggle for the civil rights of people with disabilities.

In addition to serving at DREDF, Arlene Mayerson is also a member of the Impact Fund's Grant Advisory Committee.

[1]. Lukoff & Whiteman, Attitudes Towards Blindness, 55 The New Outlook for the Blind 39, 42 (1961)