Before You Call the Candidate Who Stood Up From His Wheelchair 'Inspirational'
On Wednesday, August 26, 2020, GOP candidate Madison Cawthorn addressed the Republican National Convention. If elected, Cawthorn, who is 25 years old and vying to represent North Carolina’s 11th district, would be the youngest member of Congress. Cawthorn was paralyzed in a car accident at the age of 18, an experience he discussed during his speech and cited as having shaped his political views by helping him understand the feeling of being invisible. “I say to people who feel forgotten, ignored and invisible: I see you. I hear you,” he told viewers and an enthusiastic audience. Near the end of Cawthorn’s speech, two young men emerged from backstage, one carrying a walker. Cawthorn then used the walker to pull himself up and stand with the support of leg braces, which elicited wild applause from the audience and has made his speech go viral on social media.
Despite being on the opposite side of the political spectrum, I agree with a number of points Cawthorn made in his speech. I believe experiencing disability can teach a person about compassion and motivate them to fight on behalf of others who experience discrimination. I think people with opposing views need to have constructive conversations instead of perpetuating the hostility that has become ubiquitous in politics. And I’ve had my own bad experiences with so-called “cancel culture” and being shamed and threatened for holding a different opinion. However, the positive aspects of his speech were largely overshadowed by the way he exploited his disability to make a political point. Rather than demonstrating a meaningful understanding of disability advocacy and policy, in this moment Cawthorn used his disability to manipulate people, and as a disabled person, I am not going to stand for it.
Let’s break down his speech, particularly the ending, to understand why it was problematic. First, it’s important to recognize that Cawthorn stood up to convey a message rather than for mobility. Standing at that moment doesn’t help him to do anything but make a point. Many wheelchair users do stand and walk on a regular basis, but if that is the case for him, he could’ve opted to stand the whole time, or stand at the beginning and then sit on a chair or in his wheelchair. Instead, he saved standing until the end of his speech, intentionally creating a “dramatic moment” designed to inspire the audience by playing on harmful societal tropes surrounding disability.
Cawthorn’s performative use of standing is a classic example of what we in the disability community call “inspiration porn.” Inspiration porn is the act of objectifying disabled people for the benefit of non-disabled people. The term was coined by the late Australian disability activist Stella Young in her TED Talk, “I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much.” As Mighty contributor Saidee Wynn further explains, inspiration porn is when “abled people use pictures of disabled people to explain how inspirational they are simply for existing, or to guilt abled people into trying harder because if a disabled person can brush their teeth, then surely you can do anything.”
This is exactly what Cawthorn did at the end of his speech. When he intones, “Our republic, for which I stand,” he is essentially saying, ”If I can stand up for the flag even though I’m paralyzed, what’s your excuse?” He seemed to be using his disability to shame people who take a knee or don’t stand up for the National Anthem as an act of protest. But regardless of your opinion on this issue, his misguided metaphor quickly falls apart and is actually damaging to disabled members of his own party. After all, many people with disabilities cannot stand under any circumstances. Are they disrespecting the United States? Is the Republican Governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, less patriotic because he can’t stand for the National Anthem? Of course not, and that’s what separates inspiration porn from genuine inspiration. Inspiration porn is judgmental and sets up unfair comparisons between people with disabilities and abled people by suggesting that “overcoming” disability in certain performative ways makes you a better person. It should have no place in politics.
Many candidates and officeholders from both parties have demonstrated that people with disabilities can be strong leaders and win elections based on their policies. Senator Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq war veteran and wheelchair user who can walk short distances with prosthetic legs, gave a speech at the 2020 Democratic National Convention which stands in stark contrast to Cawthorn’s cheap stunt. Duckworth spoke while standing, supporting herself by leaning on a table with her wheelchair sitting nearby. This is an accurate representation of her everyday mobility; nothing was done to make her seem “extra inspirational” because of her disability. She mentioned her war injury, but her speech focused on the needs of soldiers and military families. Photos on her website show her interacting in a natural way with different groups of people, sometimes standing and sometimes in her wheelchair. She talks about her disability fairly often, but it is in the context of her advocacy for veterans and others with disabilities.
Dan Crenshaw, a Republican member of Congress who lost an eye while serving in Afghanistan, gave a similar speech to Duckworth’s at the Republican National Convention, honoring the sacrifices of his fellow soldiers. He references his disability when it is relevant, but for the most part, other people have been the ones drawing attention to it, such as Pete Davidson with his unfortunate comments on SNL. Republican Governor Greg Abbott of Texas also does not use his disability in a manipulative manner. He talks about becoming paralyzed and the values it instilled in him, but his primary focus is on sharing his political beliefs and advocating for the policies he supports. Although these politicians are very different from each other, they show that it is possible to metaphorically stand up for your beliefs without relying on disability stereotypes.
There is a difference between being a positive role model with a disability and using one’s disability to appeal to emotions and quell criticism. Disability is an important aspect of a person that can shape their views and values, but it alone should not be a reason to vote for or against them. It is OK to admire people with disabilities who have accomplished great things, just as you would a non-disabled person. But cloying sentimentality without substance and reliance on hackneyed stereotypes about disability do not make a person inspirational.
There are several versions of Cawthorn’s speech posted on YouTube, and on those that allow comments, many viewers are saying things like “Everyone who downvoted this guy has no heart” and “I am curious about the people who did not like this video. What is wrong with you?” This is inspiration porn in action. Because Cawthorn did something perceived as “inspirational,” he has convinced some people that he is a saint, and that anyone who would disagree with him is a heartless jerk. But this is a man who is running for political office, someone whose votes could help shape the direction of our nation. Whether disabled or able-bodied, no candidate should be above criticism. If he is elected, it should be because people agree with his views, not because he uses a wheelchair.
Despite emphasizing his disability in his campaign, Cawthorn’s platform contains no discussion of disability rights or policy at all, aside from a claim that he understands the healthcare system because of his accident. He opposes universal healthcare and a public option, while extolling the virtues of private insurance and “competition” to supposedly lower prices. He seems to have no awareness of one of the major ways insurance companies keep prices low — by refusing to cover the care their customers with disabilities need. This includes services like in-home care to bathe and get dressed, and power wheelchair functions that allow people with physical disabilities to stand. Many of us would love to get healthcare through our employer or the ACA marketplace for these services, but no private insurance covers them.
As a person with a disability in the public eye, Cawthorn’s actions contribute to shaping society’s views about disability. He is doing a disservice to the disability community and disabled politicians by perpetuating ableism in an attempt to garner votes. So far, he has done nothing but trade on his privilege and rely on one-dimensional disability stereotypes to fuel his campaign. He can do better. We, the people he is asking to vote for him and his party, deserve better.