Helen Jerman is a professional writer and editor in Dallas, who is paralyzed from the knee down due to spina bifida and is a wheelchair user as a result. She earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism and now works in corporate communications.
Last week, two staff members from a conservative group called Empower Texans were caught on tape making disparaging remarks about Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s handling of reopening the state amid the coronavirus pandemic. Abbott, who is in a wheelchair after being paralyzed in his 20s when a tree fell on him, has been under scrutiny for the pace at which he allowed Texas’ restaurants, bars and other businesses to reopen.
In announcing his reopening plans, Abbott stressed the need to have people return to work and get the economy moving again. This, at a time when Texas fell short of recommended benchmarks indicating it was safe to reopen. These benchmarks include the number of new COVID cases and COVID-related deaths, as well as testing availability.
Now, amid a fast-growing number of new COVID cases as well as deaths, the governor finds himself reversing course and reinstating some of the restrictions he had lifted on restaurants and bars. Empower Texans’ vice president and general counsel used the group’s podcast Texas Scorecard Radio as a platform to question Abbott’s handling of the issue in a profanity-riddled tirade that also included a few references to the governor’s disability — for instance, demanding that he “stand firm.”
There are two issues at play here, and they must be separated. The first issue is the poor taste of the profanity-laden tirade. The other is hypersensitivity around Gov. Abbott’s disability. It is this last part that the media has homed in on, calling out the Empower Texans’ staffers for making disparaging remarks about Abbott’s disability. However, in the segment, which lasts about three minutes, the duo only makes two jokes about that — demanding that he “stand firm” and commenting that he “wheeled himself out there” to a press conference about the reopening plans.
In an era of “cancel culture” and political correctness, it’s easy to become up in arms about such language. The reality is more nuanced. Many disabled people don’t think twice about using common phrases such as “I walked in the room” or “I stood up for myself” — even when they can’t physically do that. In fact, if you ask a disabled person, chances are they don’t want you to use language that highlights their differences.
In a world where disabled people are often at the edges of society, most would welcome language that treated them the same as everyone else rather than tiptoeing (pun intended) around their differences. Of course, equality also demands that Abbott be held to the same high standards as other state leaders and that he is not immune to criticism for his handling of the pandemic. With so much of our society in turmoil, let’s turn our outrage to the right things.
This is the first in a series of news, feature and opinion pieces made possible by gifts to the Mark Wingfield Fund for Interpretive Journalism.