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Meryl Streep Calling Trump Out for Disability Bias Should Be Just the Beginning

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As a woman with a disability, I was deeply moved by Meryl Streep’s speech at the Golden Globes. Thank you, Ms. Streep, for acknowledging the discrimination people with disabilities face, including from our country’s own President-elect. When the person who will soon occupy the highest office in the land openly mocks people with disabilities, it’s no wonder we have incidents like the horrific attack in Chicago, and so many others that don’t result in adequate media attention or justice, like the rape of a mentally disabled football player by his teammates. As a domestic violence survivor and violent crime survivor, I know all too well that people with disabilities are far more likely to be targeted for hate and harm based on who we are. Yet hardly anyone talks about it.

Last night, Meryl Streep took a step towards changing that. Her words have the power to start a national conversation about disabilities and ableism — a form of prejudice that is just as insidious as racism and sexism but far less acknowledged. And so I’m hoping last night will be just her opening salvo, and that she will continue to learn about our issues and help amplify our voices. You see, Donald Trump is poised to do far worse things to people with disabilities than make fun of us. Our health care and our lives are at risk if a number of his stated goals come to pass. Millions of people with disabilities could lose health insurance if the Affordable Care Act is repealed, and the high-risk pools he proposes for people with pre-existing conditions have historically been disastrous, with high premiums, low lifetime caps on funding, and multi-year waiting lists to get any coverage at all.

Trump’s plans for Medicaid are even worse. Currently, millions of people like me receive funding for personal care aides through Medicaid home and community-based services. I use a power wheelchair and need help with daily tasks including dressing and bathing but am able to live independently in my own house and work nearly full-time thanks to a Medicaid waiver. If Medicaid is privatized or changed to block grants, home care funding would almost certainly be cut, endangering the lives of people with disabilities and forcing some of us into nursing homes. Should I, a 30-something Stanford University graduate, editor, writer, and blogger with an active life have everything I’ve worked for ripped away and be trapped in a room next to a 90-year-old with Alzheimer’s? That’s how Donald Trump could harm people with disabilities, and it’s a lot worse than some mocking hand gestures.

The 2016 campaign was the first time disability issues ever got more than passing lip service by a candidate. Hillary Clinton actually had specific plans and policies intended to help improve health care, education, and employment for people with disabilities. She included speakers with disabilities at the Democratic National Convention and on the campaign trail. Many in the disability community were especially crushed when she lost, as we had tremendous hope that finally we would see steady and substantive progress towards equality.

Although Republicans have a history of greater support for disability issues than one might expect — the Americans With Disabilities Act and ABLE Act both had wide bipartisan support — they were mostly silent this election, except for Trump, who mocked us, and whose history of ADA violations at his hotels shows his lack of concern for accessibility and equality. Unfortunately, our needs are often perceived as expensive, but we can contribute so much to society when given the opportunity.

There are so many issues on which Ms. Streep could be an advocate for people with disabilities. Besides health care, there is police brutality; we often discuss the disproportionate number of Black people killed and beaten by police, but did you know that 60-80% of people killed by police have a disability? Deaf people are shot for failing to obey commands they couldn’t hear. Mentally ill individuals are killed by police after family members called asking for help to take them to a hospital. People who are poor and/or of color and have disabilities tend to have less access to education and health care, and can end up in the school-to-prison pipeline or homeless.

Employment is another critical issue people with disabilities face. I’m fortunate enough to have a job, but I’m in the minority; less than 27% of people with disabilities aged 16-64 are employed. Society may stereotype us as incapable of work, but that’s simply not true; a recent study showed 68% of people with disabilities are making efforts to become employed.

The biggest barriers we face are attitudinal. After graduating from Stanford, I was the last among my friends to find a job. I got interviews with several companies, but their enthusiasm magically evaporated upon seeing my wheelchair. I’m currently an editor at The Mighty; while I love my job, I’ve found that I usually have to work in the disability field to be treated with fairness and understanding. I wish I could expect and receive the same from any company.

While we’re on the topic of employment, there’s a particular issue Ms. Streep is in a unique position to address: the lack of opportunities for actors with disabilities in Hollywood. A report by the Ruderman Family Foundation shows that only 1% of TV characters have disabilities — and out of that 1%, 95% are played by able-bodied actors. This problem is pervasive, and as the record holder for the most Academy Award nominations, I’m sure she has noticed it, but she may not have considered the implications. You see, although actors with disabilities can’t get work, actors without disabilities playing people with disabilities tend to receive dozens of awards and nominations. In fact, 14 of the last 27 Best Actor Oscars were awarded to actors without disabilities playing men with disabilities or serious illnesses. The disability community refers to this as “cripping up,” and it’s part of a long tradition of usually-white actors co-opting the stories of minority groups instead of supporting people from those cultures in representing themselves.

People clearly want to see movies dealing with disability, and these films have the power to transform societal perceptions and promote understanding. So why not cast disabled actors instead? With the wide availability of CGI, even a character who acquires a disability during the course of a movie or TV show can be portrayed by an actor with a disability. One day, playing a character with a physical or developmental disability when you don’t have one should be regarded as offensive, just like blackface is today. Ms. Streep and others in the industry can help by publicly praising actors with disabilities and advocating for well-developed, non-stereotypical characters with disabilities in film and TV. The TV show “Speechless” is a great example, and we need more like it.

To Ms. Streep: your words were a tremendous gift to the disability community. Now, I hope you will help us open that gift and transform it into real change, so people of all abilities can be respected and treated with equality. Please take the next step — or ramp — and reach out to activists with disabilities like me. Even with a man who mocks people like us in the White House, together we can make a difference.

Follow this journey on Free Wheelin’.

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Originally published: January 9, 2017
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