It is a sad irony that the most powerful person in a wheelchair in America, Greg Abbott, current governor of Texas, has seemingly no interest in advancing the rights or opportunities for people with disabilities. He is by all accounts a straight shooter, but in the words of Jonathon Tilove, chief political correspondent for the Austin Statesman, “he is a conservative, free-market, Texas Republican with all that entails.” If you are of like mind, this is good news for you. If you are of any other political persuasion to the left of Ted Cruz, or Ted Nugent, this whole Abbott thing is a head-scratcher.
Abbott became a T12 para when, as a young law school graduate, he was out jogging one day and part of a giant oak tree fell on him and crushed his spine. He sped through rehab and kept going, sidestepping the usual depression and despair. After making a name for himself as the attorney general who stood up for “Texas values,” he ran for governor as one tough hombre with literally a spine of steel. He won in a landslide.
At first, leaders in the Texas disability community cut him considerable slack. Hey, he’s a guy in a wheelchair in the front office. His very presence is good for us. He isn’t ashamed or sensitive about his condition and is in no way defined by it. For Texans, the wheelchair doesn’t exist.
For Greg Abbott, disability issues don’t seem to exist, either. He clearly has bigger concerns, like putting up the “No Syrians Welcome Here” sign or ordering the National Guard to make sure a bunch of hopped-up super patriots in West Texas aren’t rounded up by the U.S. Army on a training mission and locked up in abandoned Walmart stores. Not to get too glib, but there are about 3 million people with disabilities in Texas and only a rec hall full of free-range vigilantes, but maybe I just don’t understand “Texas values.”
One instance where Abbott could have acted on a disability issue occurred last May when a group of 15 or so activists, led by Bob Kafka of ADAPT of Texas, crowded into the governor’s reception room and refused to leave until he addressed raising the base pay for home care attendants to a “livable” wage of $10 an hour. This is a critical issue for those who depend on attendants to live independently. The governor was out of the office at the time and made no comment about the sit-in. Next!
At first blush, Abbott’s disregard for his disabled “brothers and sisters” runs counter to the conventional wisdom about a post-paralysis response. Studies show that survivors are more compassionate and more forgiving towards others in the same straits. They’ve been there. They know all about the pain, anguish, anger and confusion. They’ve come out stronger and want others to feel the same.
Abbott ain’t that cat. But why? Since I don’t know him at all, I can only guess. The simplest explanation is that in many cases a trauma like paralysis doesn’t change a person much at all. The newly disabled people who seem more sensitized to people with disabilities probably had those same tendencies before their own injury. They didn’t change as much as find a new focus for their compassion.
But there is another explanation for the Abbotts of the world outlined in a recent New York Times article entitled “The Funny Thing About Adversity.” After laying out all the “more compassionate” data, the authors note a glaring exception: People tend to feel less empathy for those who experience the exact same trauma. The attitude is, “Hey, I got through it, so should you. Don’t come crying to me, bud. Man up, for chrissakes.” In this case, disability doesn’t soften hearts. It hardens them.
Has Abbott generalized this attitude toward all people with disabilities, whether they have caregiver needs or not? No government program or charity helped Abbott get up off the floor and keep punching. All it took was his spine of steel. Life is no different than boot camp. If you can’t cut the mustard, sayonara, baby. No excuses. That’s the way the world works.
Maybe John Wayne isn’t dead after all. He just landed in a wheelchair and came back as fightin’ Greg Abbott.