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Why Many Disability Advocates Aren't Celebrating the Election of Madison Cawthorn

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Editor's Note

This story discusses a controversial political topic and reflects the opinion of the author. We believe in sharing a variety of perspectives from our community.

North Carolina U.S. Representative-elect Madison Cawthorn, who uses a wheelchair due to a spinal cord injury he experienced when he was 18, made headlines in August when he stood using a walker at the Republican National Convention. Cawthorn won his election on Tuesday, and is now the youngest Republican ever elected to Congress. With Cawthorn’s spotlight comes not only an increased duty to represent his constituents, including disabled people, but also more scrutiny, as many advocates argue that his campaign has perpetuated damaging narratives about disability.

Specifically, disability advocates have asserted that his messaging amounts to “inspiration porn,” the concept that disabled people exist to be inspirational and should use their struggles to motivate others. Cawthorn has also been perceived as a “supercrip,” a disabled superhero who overcomes all obstacles.

In a tense exchange with disability advocate Justin Richardson, who called him out on social media a couple of months ago for what he termed, “ableist stunts,” Cawthorn responded, “The disabled community is so diverse there is no way you can speak for everyone. I have zero idea how I am ableist whatever the hell that means. I am not disabled, I am just a person who lives in a wheelchair.”

Can Disabled People Create Inspiration Porn?

The term “inspiration porn” was coined by the late Australian comedian and disability advocate Stella Young. In her 2014 TED talk, Young defined inspiration porn in visual media as:

“Objectify[ing] one group of people for the benefit of another group of people. So in this case, we’re objectifying disabled people for the benefit of non-disabled people. The purpose of these images is to inspire you, to motivate you, so that we can look at them and think, ‘Well, however bad my life is, it could be worse. I could be that person.'”

Such content is usually created by non-disabled people for their own consumption, but in Cawthorn’s case, he was accused of propagating it himself. After he stood up at the Republican National Convention, not for mobility, but as if to say, “If I can stand for the flag, you can too,” Mighty editor Karin Willison wrote: 

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?

While this is a complex topic, disabled people ultimately have agency about how they define themselves, but that doesn’t mean other advocates believe these depictions aren’t deleterious to disabled people.

Why It’s Frustrating to See a Public Figure With a Disability Not Identify as Disabled

Cawthorn identifying himself as “a person who lives in a wheelchair” instead of “disabled” brings up the concept of internalized ableism, which is actually something many disabled people experience at some point. Internalized ableism is when someone with a disability denies or even loathes part of who they are to meet society’s expectations, which sees being non-disabled as the ideal.

Kristen Parisi, who penned a Medium piece the day after the Republican National Convention, contends that how Cawthorn views his identity as a disabled person is harmful to the disability community as a whole:

“[W]hat Cawthorn did last night was perpetuate the notion that a disabled person must try to not be disabled. I don’t know if he understands that what he did was harmful to our community — my guess is not. Because Cawthorn grew up in the same ableist society that the rest of us did, and probably has a negative view of his own disability. He may think he needs to do this to be accepted and praised by non-disabled America.” 

While disabled people are not of one mind as to the merits of using oneself as inspiration porn or as a supercrip — and we can’t assume Cawthorn’s intentions, especially since he has been clear how he identifies — it is frustrating that one of the handful of people who could represent the disability community in U.S. Congress does not identify as disabled. Nobody, Cawthorn included, is obligated to be an overt advocate or to talk about disability in the same terms as others in the community. But there are so few other disabled people represented in Congress.

I certainly understand the pressures of living in an ableist society and comprehend that Cawthorn, whose accident was merely seven years ago, may view the descriptor “disabled” as a pejorative. Many disabled people struggle with a battle where, on the one hand, they desire to identify with the non-disabled society, but on the other hand, they know they are different. Ultimately, “disabled” is not a bad word, and I hope that Cawthorn knows that even though he’s made clear he doesn’t want to use that term to describe himself.

Where We Go From Here

While it’s difficult for disabled people to even gain the social acceptance necessary to become politicians in the first place, Cawthorn is in a unique position. He has parlayed his youth, intelligence and charisma into a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he will ultimately be viewed as not only the future of the Republican Party, but also of American politics more generally.

As a result, Cawthorn could have an outsized impact on topics important to disabled people, like health care, independent living and disability rights more generally — decisions Congress already makes with little input from the disability community. But in order to do that, Cawthorn must understand that part of being a representative means listening to his constituents, including the disability community.

Ultimately, the next generation of disabled people, not only in Cawthorn’s district, but nationwide, desire a representative whom they may admire. But this doesn’t mean that Cawthorn needs to be reduced to being inspiration porn or a supercrip; he could have just as great an impact as an authentic human and legislator who makes disabled people’s lives tangibly better.

Read more on The Mighty: Before You Call the Candidate Who Stood Up From His Wheelchair ‘Inspirational’

Image via YouTube.

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