There has always been a great deal of discussion in the disability community about allies. Most of that discussion takes place in terms of who deserves that title in regards to persons with disabilities. But it’s a valid discussion for parents and families, too.
Regarding our constant search for potential allies, I read something today that surprised me. In 2004, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott (who has been in the news lately after announcing his own bid for governor) launched an effort to strike down part of the Americans with Americans With Disabilities Act. Without going too deeply into my own politics, I will simply say that this didn’t surprise me because he’s a Republican. Despite being signed into law by a Republican president, the ADA has drawn fire from such notable Republicans as Clint Eastwood and former Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft. Even Rick Santorum has taken his shots at the ADA, despite his own child with a disability. I think it’s safe to say that a lot of Republicans don’t like it, and in that respect, it’s hardly surprising that Greg Abbott would feel the same.
No, it surprised me because for the last 29 years, Greg Abbott has been in a wheelchair.
When Abbott became Atty. Gen., Texans with disabilities thought they had an ally. That didn’t last long; in 2002, his office launched a constitutional challenge of a section of the ADA that prohibits public entities from discriminating against people with disabilities. (Abbott also built his first campaign for Atty. Gen. around strict tort reform after receiving a $10 million settlement for the accident that put him in a wheelchair. I’m not actually sure what to say about that. Perhaps Greg Abbott simply isn’t a “cause-and-effect” kind of guy.)
I’m not bringing this up to say that Greg Abbott is a bad person. It appears that he’s loyal to his party and its positions on disability rights, and I suppose that’s something to be acknowledged. I wouldn’t vote for him, but I would never insist on some monolithic conformity of belief within the disability community, and I won’t pretend to see into his heart. His soul’s his own business.
But Greg Abbott illustrates just how complicated our search for allies can be. We look for policymakers whom we believe will understand, often because they themselves have disabilities, or have loved ones who do. We search for other families who have gone through what we have. We put our trust in therapists and teachers who have seen so many kids like ours, and whom we think are doing the work of the angels. We hope that our own families will get it.
But policymakers live and (professionally) die by their loyalty to their parties and their interests. Whichever part of the political spectrum you personally believe in, you’re very likely at some point to be gravely disappointed. Other special needs parents can judge and play the Pain Olympics, calling into question the choices that your doctors, your child’s teachers, and most of all you as parents have made, often based on ridiculously incomplete information and informed solely by their own experience. Occasionally, teachers and therapists can lose their faith. They can sometimes make choices that are ultimately in their own best interest, and if they do get it wrong with your kid, well, they’ll just have to try and get it right with the next one.
And family can break your heart right in two.
For those of us charged with caring for and helping to build independent lives with loved ones with disabilities, trust can become hard to extend. We’ve all been burned. When we see someone like Greg Abbott build a career with the benefit of a lot of good people’s hard work, only to pull the ladder up behind him, we’re not shocked.
We’ve seen that before. And we’ve gotten pretty good at choosing our allies. For those of us who are parents and family, we work hardest of all at becoming effective allies for those we care about.
Sometimes we fail. But we can’t give up. And hopefully, we leave the ladders in place.
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