My father was a big believer in making New Year’s resolutions. At the end of every year, he’d set audacious, nearly impossible goals for himself- writing a book, learning a foreign language, recording an album, running for political office, training for a marathon. On December 31st of every year, my father was the most ambitious man in America.
But he wasn’t delusional. Don’t get me wrong. He was perfectly capable of doing everything he aspired to do, and in fairness to him, he’d balance out his outsized resolutions with other, more manageable, and more pedestrian goals.
I think he just enjoyed the exercise of making a list of goals, even if some of them seemed way too lofty to achieve in a single year. It was both positive reinforcement and a way to hold himself accountable.
I may have inherited my father’s sense of ambition, but unlike him, I’ve never been keen on writing a list of New Year’s resolutions. This year, though, for the first time in my adult life, I decided to publicly resolve myself to do one thing. I had one and only one item on my list.
I made a decision, this year, to be a better and more forceful advocate for the physically, mentally, and developmentally disabled. Or, if you prefer, the physically, mentally, and developmentally challenged. Or, better yet, to paraphrase Steve Gleason, “the superhumans.”
Somehow, I’ve managed to carve out this little place for myself on the Internet, and for some reason, people actually pay attention to the things I say. If there is anything I can do to raise awareness, to educate the public and my neighbors, to advocate for the rights and the basic dignity and humanity of those who, too often, are ridiculed and patronized, and to help repair broken vessels, then I think I must.
Life is too short. No white flags.
I didn’t have any real plan on how I was going to become “a better and more forceful advocate” for the disabled; I only knew, in my gut, that it was something I needed to be.
I’ve spent the greater part of the last decade sharing my opinions on almost everything from local city council elections to creationism in the classroom to the legacy of slavery in the modern American South. And while I have written before about my personal experiences as someone who lives with a disability, almost everything I had ever written on the subject was reactive, not proactive. Usually, it was in response to something that a stranger had said about me on the Internet.
While I always aimed to tell a larger story about the struggle for disability rights in America, I constantly ran the risk of sounding whiny or too defensive. Folks who know me only through the Internet don’t know me for my disability; they know me for my writing and for my opinions on politics and policy, and that’s a good thing, of course. However, it also makes writing about my experience as a disabled American all the more difficult. Since I launched this website eight years ago, it’s been read more than 1.1 million times. No one comes here to read about disability rights. I’ve built my readership by almost exclusively writing about the circus of Louisiana politics.
There’s an adage that is often repeated in almost every college creative writing course in the country: “Write what you know.” I know Louisiana and its politics like the back of my hand, but I know what it is like to live with a disability even more. And for years, I stayed away from the subject. I recoiled when those with whom I disagreed politically would lampoon me for being disabled, as if my physical condition somehow rendered my political opinions less valid.
Over the last two or three years, however, I’ve grown more confident in sharing my personal experience and my perspective as someone who was born with a physical disability. I’ve learned to understand that by sharing my own voice, I can give voice to others who are far too often marginalized or dismissed entirely by a political and media establishment built on privilege and access to power. It may be the most important thing I can possibly do with the time that I have here on this planet.
Two weeks ago, I stepped onto an unfamiliar stage and into the world of Texas politics, and since then, I have learned more about how we as a society treat and perceive those with a physical disability than I’d learned in the entire time I’ve published this website.
On November 4th, Texas will either elect Greg Abbott, a Republican, or Wendy Davis, a Democrat, as its next governor. Both of them have compelling, remarkable stories. Davis went from being a single mother in a trailer to the hallowed halls of Harvard Law School, by sheer force of her own tenacity and smarts. Abbott was paralyzed in an accident when he was in his late 20s, but despite his injury, he has become one of the most successful politicians in Texas history, having been elected twice to the Texas State Supreme Court and three times as Texas Attorney General.
Indeed, Greg Abbott, arguably, is the most successful disabled political leader since FDR, but, ironically, he also has one of the worst records on disability rights in the entire country. After receiving a multi-million dollar settlement for his injury, Abbott spent the next 30 years of his career fighting against the rights of others from receiving the same type of justice. He championed a series of laws that would have made his own settlement illegal. He’s fought against attempts to make Texas comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. He has been a stalwart opponent of the Affordable Care Act, a law that opens up health insurance coverage to hundreds of thousands of Texans and guarantees that no one can be denied coverage because of a pre-existing condition.
He may be disabled, but that doesn’t somehow mean that his record on the issue should be off-limits.
Three days before I sat in front of a sea of cameras at a campaign office in Fort Worth, Wendy Davis released a television commercial criticizing Abbott’s hypocrisy on disability and victim’s rights. Her commercial began with the stark, black and white image of an empty wheelchair, and although the commercial proceeded to describe several examples of Abbott’s abysmal record and his blatant hypocrisy, all everyone wanted to talk about was that wheelchair.
Greg Abbott has been elected statewide not once or twice but five times, but if you believed what many in the national media, including some who are considered reliably liberal, and the entire conservative blogosphere were reporting, you’d think that Wendy Davis was callously, recklessly, and cynically attacking a man just for being in a wheelchair. To me, the response to Davis’s ad didn’t just demonstrate how dumb and lazy the political commentariat is; it also revealed that many Americans are somehow more offended by the mere image of a wheelchair than a politician with a record of fighting against the rights of real human beings in wheelchairs.
Through a friend, I volunteered to speak at Wendy Davis’s press conference, and that is how I ended up in Fort Worth and in front of the bright lights.
I thought it was important to tell the public and the media that disabled Americans, people like me, weren’t offended by the image of a wheelchair. As a matter of fact, among folks who live with a physical disability, wheelchairs are hugely popular, and I’m not trying to be flippant. Wheelchairs are empowering. They save lives. The only people who are scared of wheelchairs are those who are scared of being disabled; that’s not a fear for those of us who are already disabled, even folks like me who only use a wheelchair occasionally.
The media had this one completely wrong.
I spoke for about two minutes about Abbott, his record, and why I was proud of Senator Davis for bringing this to light. I gave a couple of pertinent examples of Abbott’s hypocrisy on the issue. But I think most importantly, I was able to talk briefly about basic human empathy, the need to recognize your own privileges, and the importance helping those less fortunate with the chance to access the same opportunities that you may take for granted.
I wasn’t there to deconstruct a television commercial or explain to the media how their collective reaction to the image of a wheelchair revealed their own inherent biases against and uncomfortableness with the disabled.
I volunteered to speak because, to me, this was about ensuring that my three nieces live in a state that protects disabled children against unrelenting bullying and a state provides opportunities and access in education and the workforce for those who may think or move differently than everyone else. I was there because I strongly believe that every single American, regardless of their age or their income, should enjoy the benefits of the best medical care in the world and because I know, first-hand, that with the right doctors and the right care, a child who may have otherwise been imprisoned for life by his disability can become independent. I was there because the Americans with Disabilities Act isn’t a legal abstraction to me; it’s the reason I could receive a mainstream education in public schools as a kid, and it’s one of the reasons I’m able to attend law school. Elevators and ramps don’t build themselves, after all. I was there because I believe in a system of justice that values the rights of victims more than the profit margins of corporations.
I sat down during my remarks, because, as I later told The Houston Chronicle, I was worried that if I had stood, I may have fallen on camera. Ask anyone who knows me: I have terrible balance. After I wrapped up my speech, I nodded to a staffer to help me slide my chair over about three feet, so I could make room at the podium for the next speaker. It was something I had asked for in advance. The entire exchange took less than five seconds, but in those five seconds, I managed to become the headline.
Only minutes after Wendy Davis finished her speech and the event ended, dozens of conservative pundits had taken to social media, lambasting her for using me and the other disabled people who sat and stood by her at the event as “campaign props.” These were the same pundits who were outraged by the image of an empty wheelchair in a television commercial, as if it was an attack against Greg Abbott’s disability, and yet here they were, in full force, arguing that I was nothing more than an object, something to be trotted out on stage in a cynical and exploitative attempt at damage control.
About an hour later, a writer at the Washington Free Beacon uploaded the video clip of me being slid from the podium and blasted the Davis campaign for shamelessly “dragging a disabled man across the stage.” The video was picked up by a number of other conservative websites and bloggers, and within a day, it had been viewed more than 70,000 times.
It was nasty and hateful and dehumanizing, but I wasn’t going to bite my tongue. I sent out a tweet, to no one in particular: “I am a human being. Not a campaign prop. I volunteered to speak because Wendy Davis is right.” The next day, my tweet was the headline of an article in Salon.com and was quoted in the pages of The New York Times. It was reassuring that most people recognized the characterization of me as a “prop” who was “shamelessly dragged” as a smear and a stark example of the cruelty and ignorance of a self-entitled, self-ordained political class who chews and spits up anyone and everyone who challenges the narrative they’re selling.
I was not invented in a laboratory to help Wendy Davis or any other politician. Once I spoke up publicly, both online and in an op-ed published in The Houston Chronicle, I think it became much more difficult to argue, with a straight face, that I was just some poor, helpless handicapped guy who was embarrassed by Wendy Davis. Even the Washington Free Beacon updated its article about me being “dragged across the stage” to report that, in fact, their report was entirely concocted and incorrect.
However, not everyone was as decent or as honest. Not everyone accepted my certification of my own humanity and agency as valid. Some accused me of ginning up my disability for the cameras. A blogger on the LSU forum Tiger Droppings suggested, bizarrely, that I was a “fake paraplegic.”
And perhaps I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was, considering his long record of hate-mongering and bigotry in Louisiana, but Scott McKay, the blogger responsible for the vomit published on The Hayride, was more awful to me and to the disability rights community in general than anyone else in the country, which is saying a lot.
Scott’s website is relatively well-known in Louisiana, and although he passes himself off as a serious journalist, it appears- based on the e-mails that he sends out at least once a week- that he is mainly in the business of selling gold, doomsday preparation supplies, and other sundry wares that appeal to the most paranoid fringe of society.
Suffice it to say, I’ve never been a fan of his work or his enterprise, and I’ve made it clear to him repeatedly that I think much of what he contributes to our shared political discourse is bigoted and ignorant. Not surprisingly, he’s not a fan of mine either.
On the afternoon that I spoke at Wendy Davis’s press conference, Scott ran with this headline and image:
That’s me behind the microphone. In his post, he even embedded the video clip of me being assisted, but because he has never met me in real life, he apparently had no clue that the “crippled” person he was ridiculing was none other than his Louisiana liberal nemesis.
Once another blogger and I pointed this out to him on Twitter, he spent the next couple of days spilling several hundred words about me. I imagine this was just too good to be true for him; his worlds were colliding. Most of what he wrote is hackneyed drivel and not worth any of our time, but there is at least one teachable moment. In his post titled “Lamar White, Noted Wendy Davis Campaign Prop, Now Hurls Accusations” (I’d called him a bigot for, well, see the image above), Scott writes (bold mine):
First, if Lamar couldn’t see that he wasn’t doing his candidate a whole lot of good by having a handler drag his chair away from a microphone it doesn’t particularly speak for his political, or theatrical, acumen. There were lots of ways to handle his exit from center stage. He could have walked off with someone offering him a shoulder to lean on and prevent a fall, he could have used a wheelchair, he could have had a podium of his own set up slightly to the center so that it wouldn’t have been necessary to move him at all in the middle of the press event, he could have had a Segway, or he could have even been on a chair with rollers. Any of those options would have looked less “awkward,” which is another way to say demeaning, than what actually happened.
So if this was his idea of stagecraft, let’s just say he’s not good at it. If you’re going to be a prop to show that Wendy Davis isn’t bigoted against handicapped people despite the ad she just made, you really don’t want to put yourself in position to make it look like her campaign can’t handle its disabled prop-people with any degree of dignity.
So this is a criticism of White that isn’t bigoted about his disability; it’s a criticism of the fact he made his candidate look like a fool – and a fool insensitive to disabled people at that, which defeated the entire purpose of his showing up to defend her. The fact that he’s now lashing out at anyone who commented on the spectacle is evidence that he may understand this.
I decided to quote generously from Scott’s “analysis,” not only because he’s a fellow Louisiana boy but also because he gets almost everything perfectly, comically wrong.
I’m going to tackle each of these accusations; I think they’re all instructive.
But first here’s the video clip he uses (compare it with the other one on top):
Regarding the idea that I lacked political and theatrical acumen: I delivered a two minute speech which was generally well-received, and it took no more than three seconds for me to be assisted to the side of the podium. There were nearly a hundred people at the event that morning, including several major television and newspaper journalists. None of them – in fact no one at all- asked me or anyone else about being slid on stage or the “theatrics” of a press conference that featured a man with cerebral palsy, a girl with cerebral palsy, at least two disabled veterans, and at least three people in wheelchairs. No one was offended or disrespected. No one felt undignified.
Scott McKay watched a ten second video clip and decided that I was a spectacle, that I was handled awkwardly, that I made the candidate look like a fool, and that I looked awkward in that ephemeral clip of me being slid.
I never signed up to perform in a play or to sing or to dance. I volunteered to speak at a press conference on disability rights, and because I have a disability, I suppose there was a risk involved: No amount of make-up could conceal the fact that I walk and sit and move differently. On camera, my disability is noticeable.
Scott suggested to his readers a range of other options he thought would be acceptable for me. But besides the ridiculous notion of me jumping onto a Segway (it’s as if he just “googled” “mobility device”), which, in my hands, would have led to numerous injuries, everything else Scott suggested is about making me seem less disabled to the cameras than I actually am. He called it “stagecraft,” and while he blamed the Davis campaign for the awkwardness of my movements, the truth is that he was just uncomfortable watching a disabled person receiving the exact type of compassionate assistance he had requested.
There is also an inherent presumption that Scott knows more about my disability and limitations than I do. I never, not for a single second, thought that I looked like a fool, because that’s just the way I move. So, put another way, as hard as Scott may have tried to blame Wendy Davis for making me look like a fool, he is actually just arguing that I look like a fool because of my disability. That, I’m afraid, is ignorant and bigoted.
And if the way I moved or the way I was assisted makes anyone uncomfortable, I suggest they reconsider their own biases against those with disabilities.
My disability has made some folks uncomfortable for my entire life. But that is not my problem.
I’ve learned how to negotiate my own life very well, and the advice on stagecraft and theatrical acumen is both patronizing, ignorant, and bigoted; it can only come from someone who is so detached from the realities faced by tens of thousands of people in Louisiana and even more in Texas that live with a disability, someone who cares more about theater than leadership and policy, someone who views politics as entertainment, not an exercise in forming a better and more perfect democracy.
But I’m not going to let it bother me.
I still have that one New Year’s resolution, and right now, I am fairly close to checking it off my list.