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The New Danger of Difference

Schuyler went to bed several hours ago, when the election results began heading south. In the morning, we’re going to have a hard conversation.

She knew the stakes. She knew that the basic right to be different was in danger. Schuyler was aware of Donald Trump’s dehumanizing use of people with disabilities as a punchline. She understood that he and many of his followers believe that she is less, that her disability makes her a joke at the very best. She understood that as a young woman, her life would have less value and less safety in a nation where the chosen leader has, by his own admission, sexually assaulted women and gotten away with it specifically because of his fame and power, the kind of power she can never have. She went to bed knowing that her LGBTQ friends and family would almost certainly lose their rights, and that her questions about her own orientation could take on a dangerous flavor. Schuyler knew what was at stake, and that in all the ways that matter most, she’s among the most vulnerable.

And by the time you read this, I will have had to explain some things.

I will have explained to her that as a person with a disability, she might have to endure more teasing and more abuse than before. As a person with an intellectual disability, she’s going to have to find a way to endure being the punchline of a joke. She’ll learn that whatever services and supports she might have had before will almost certainly diminish. One of Trump’s plans for education involves dismantling the Department of Education, which would most likely mean destroying the legal protections for Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) which guarantees that kids like Schuyler are entitled to receive a free appropriate public education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). She can expect similar dismantling of adult services, too.

In the face of this, I’ll tell Schuyler what I’ve always told her, that she has value, she has as much human value as any other person in the world. I’ll remind her that the man waving his arms around on tv as he impersonates someone with a disability and who uses the R Word as a joke and an insult, that man is wrong, even if he is now the president, and the newly emboldened people who will take his cues in their interactions with her are wrong. She is a human being, and her rights to exist are not negotiable. That doesn’t change.

By the time you read this, I will have already told Schuyler, with a seriousness that I hope she takes to heart, that as a young woman, particularly one with a disability, she will have to move very, very carefully in the world. It was always going to be a dangerous place for her; statistically, as a girl with an intellectual disability, she was wildly vulnerable to sexual assault. That was the case before her country selected an admitted sexual abuser and ableist as its president. Schuyler will be twenty years old by the time another presidential election rolls around. She will reach adulthood in a country where the danger to her as a vulnerable woman is almost certain to increase. Her value as a person is now something she will have to insist on. Her autonomy over her own body as she gets older is now extremely uncertain.

When you read this, I will likely have already discussed with Schuyler the danger to her gay and lesbian friends and family. Their legal rights in this country are almost certain to be curtailed and reversed, but more than that, the parts of our society that hate the LGBTQ community will be emboldened. As Schuyler continues to work out her own still-fluid sexuality, she will now do so under very real threat. And as a non-religious person, she can now expect to be marginalized by those same parts of society.

Most difficult, Schuyler will have to come to terms with the fact that some of the people she loves and trusts the most, including family on both sides, voted to make her life more difficult, horrifying so. She’ll know that there are monsters in the world that aren’t within her, and some of the people she loved and trusted handed those monsters the key to the castle, just let them in without hesitation.

In the morning, as the sun rises on a very new and very uncertain world, I will be explaining to Schuyler that too soon, things are going to be very different in this society, and in ways that will have an almost universally negative effect on her life. The country in which she lives have chosen a social narrative in which she is almost entirely unwelcome. She’s white, and she was born in the United States. That’s about all she’ll have going for her. And those are some shitty things on which to hang her safety and success as an American.

There’s one more thing I’ll be explaining to Schuyler. I’ll be telling her that some things have altered, and altered radically. But some things are unchanged. Some things are unchangeable.

As she gets ready to go to school in a changed world, I will remind Schuyler that she is the owner of her body, and that she is the only person who gets to make choices about it. She will be reminded that her value as a human being isn’t determined by how typical her brain is or how well she integrates into this society, a society that will now more than ever be insufficient at the task of recognizing that value. She’ll know that her own journey to determine who she loves and what she believes is sacrosanct, and that no one can diminish her because of the person she ultimates determines herself to be. She’ll be reassured that her friends who are immigrants or whose skin is a different color from hers are welcome and will probably need a more committed level of friendship from her.

When Schuyler gets up tomorrow and faces her weary and deeply disheartened father, she will be told that what’s wrong with America isn’t those like her who are different, or who insist on their humanity without limitations. What’s wrong with America doesn’t belong to her.

There’s one last thing Schuyler will hear before she gets on the bus and goes out into a darker, more rough-edged world. I’ll make a promise to her, not for the first time but perhaps with more urgency (and perhaps futility) than ever before. I will promise to do everything in my power to protect her from a newly dangerous world, and to fulfill the promise that has been made to her by America. It’s a promise I’m determined to see kept, current political and social atmosphere be damned.

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