Since the early days of the Trump administration there have been questions about the president’s conduct, his behavior, how he speaks, and more recently how he moves and drinks water.
It is as if — instead of making the argument that the person elected into the highest office in the land was not qualified, lacked moral fiber or has not stepped up to lead with the gravitas needed for the moment we find ourselves — it is easier to imply that the president is disabled and that is the root of his poor choices.
Given how disastrous the Trump presidency has been, as well as the combined ages of the viable nominees in this year’s election, there has been heightened scrutiny about both candidates’ mental and physical health. Evasiveness about Trump’s physical and a mystery trip to Walter Reed have fueled speculation about the president, while Joe Biden’s release of a recent medical summary — which raised no flags on the vice president’s physical or mental health — has not stopped the White House from the continued attack on their opponent’s cognitive state.
It is really easy for people to sink to the level of ableism, or discrimination against people with disabilities, when looking for reasons to insult the president. Most modern-day insults have their roots in ableism. Lydia Brown has written about it extensively in her blog, Autistic Hoya.
In previous administrations, discussion about the health of an incumbent president has largely been pro-forma with a general understanding by the public that what was provided by the White House and the president’s medical staff was the truth, and that individuals had a fundamental right to privacy. But these annual disclosures morphed to standard water cooler talk in the 1990s with the post-cancer run of Paul Tsongas and the revelation of President Ronald Reagan’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. It is also not a coincidence that these events followed the 1990 passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
This year’s candidates themselves have also jumped into the fray. Between the two of them, this lobbing of insults to each other’s physicality and intellect feels like the staged and scripted hype before WrestleMania, with each candidate competing over who can talk the most smack about their rival, which then gets echoed in sound bites by the followers of each campaign.
But there are real-world implications for these back-and-forth barbs. Using perception of disability or chronic illness as an insult further stigmatizes the 61 million people in the country who have a disability and are not the commander in chief.
At the same time that there is debate about whether or not the president wears adult diapers, he appointed a labor secretary who defended a company’s right to discriminate against a woman he suggested invest in the items instead of expecting her employer to comply with her civil rights.
Incontinence is a real issue faced by millions of Americans, and reducing it to a joke or a punchline about someone’s ability to lead is simply not OK.
The question about whether or not we should be speculating on the health of candidates is a complicated one. Should those closest to the president feel he cannot fulfill the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodations, there are in fact actions that they can take. We often hear folks say that the president’s behavior is so erratic and dangerous that the only explanation is that he is clearly disabled. There are significant flaws in this analysis, the first of which is that it’s often posited by individuals who have no qualifications to make such an assessment.
Given the context of a pandemic, a recession and civil acts of resistance, if the 2020 presidential election is decided on the basis of who can do the most pushups or complete a cognitive assessment the fastest, it is to the detriment of every person in this country.
It’s beyond time to move on — let’s talk about the issues.
Rebecca Cokley is the director of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress.