Greg Abbott and the new politics of disability


When Greg Abbott is sworn in Tuesday as governor of Texas he will join very select company. He will be only the third governor in American history who requires a wheelchair.

The first, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, had already been the Democratic candidate for vice president in 1920, the year before he contracted polio while swimming in Maine. For the rest of his life, as governor of New York and president of the United States, he avoided being seen publicly in a wheelchair, fearing it would be seen as a sign of weakness and ill health.

The second, George Wallace, had twice been elected governor of Alabama and twice ran for president — winning five states in the 1968 presidential election — when he was shot at a Maryland shopping center while making his third run for president in 1972, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. He would run yet again for president and twice more be elected governor of Alabama from a wheelchair.

Now comes Abbott who, in 1984, was a 26-year-old law school graduate of great potential but no renown when he was hit by a falling tree while jogging in Houston, crushing his spine and leaving him, like Wallace, paraplegic.

Unlike Roosevelt or Wallace, Abbott rose to fame in a wheelchair. Far from something to hide, or a fate that befell a man already fixed in the public eye, Abbott’s use of a wheelchair has always been a part of his public persona, and increasingly, in his campaigns for state Supreme Court, attorney general and governor, even more than that.

He has transformed a symbol of weakness and powerlessness into a symbol of strength, determination and even self-sufficiency, a source of pride.

Nearly a century since FDR worried that the very appearance of a wheelchair could destroy his political future, Abbott has proved that a wheelchair need not be a liability, that it could even be an electoral advantage, marking his ascension to the governorship of the nation’s second-largest state as a singular moment in American disability history.

“I think from the standpoint of being a role model for individuals with disabilities in the United States, but also around the world, Greg Abbott will make a statement that has never been made before,” said Lex Frieden, former chairman of the National Council on Disability and one of the architects of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.

A professor of biomedical informatics and rehabilitation at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, Frieden is also director of the Independent Living Research Utilization program at TIRR Memorial Hermann Hospital, where he did his rehabilitation after a car accident during his first year in college severed his spinal cord, and where he worked with Abbott on his rehabilitation after his accident.

“He is breaking down a lot of barriers just by doing his job, regardless of whether he does a good job or a bad job, regardless of whether people agree or disagree with his political views, he is breaking down barriers by the mere fact that he will be working at that job,” Frieden said.

Or, as Dave Carney, a top adviser to the Abbott campaign puts it, “If a person in a wheelchair can be governor of Texas, a person in a wheelchair can be anything.”

‘A spine of steel’

In a state that demands its governor have swagger, Abbott ran for governor as a kind of super hero.

As Abbott put it when he announced for governor, he is a man both figuratively and literally with a “spine of steel,” an iron man who, in his introductory campaign ad, re-enacted his recovery regimen of rolling his wheelchair up an eight-story parking garage. “With each floor it got harder and harder, but I wouldn’t quit,” Abbott says in his voice-over. “`Just one more,’ I would tell myself, `Just one more.’”

That there is not more national fanfare about Abbott’s history-making says something about how much views toward disability and wheelchairs have changed. Perhaps, despite its infrequency, Abbott’s achievement is seen as no big deal. Wheelchairs, especially since the Americans with Disability Act opened access to so many places, have come to be emblems of mobility, and not just of disability.

Then too, those most active in the disability rights movement, who would ordinarily be the ones most likely to trumpet a milestone like Abbott’s election, are mostly unhappy with Abbott’s conservative views — notably his invocation, as attorney general, of the state’s claims of sovereign immunity under the 11th Amendment of the Constitution, from ADA lawsuits.

Last fall, in the thick of the gubernatorial campaign, Dave Dauber and Gene Rodgers, co-hosts of the disability focused “Gene and Dave Show” on Austin Public Access Community Television, created a parody video of Abbott’s “Garage” ad, in which a crew of disabled folks in motorized wheelchairs cruise through a parking garage until they run headlong, screaming, into a wall. The narration: When “Texans with disabilities try to help themselves, they run into a wall built by Greg Abbott.”

“To suggest that just because I have a disability that I would abandon the law is like suggesting to Barack Obama that he ignore the Constitution in favor of someone who was African-American,” Abbott told the American-Statesman shortly after he announced his candidacy. “That’s an insult.”

In November 2013, Allen Rucker, a Los Angeles writer who was paralyzed in middle age, wrote a cover story for New Mobility, “the magazine for active wheelchair users,” on “Greg Abbott: The Cowboy Candidate.”

“A spine of steel conveys power, endurance, and an unbendable will. No matter how he feels about the needs of other people with disabilities, he himself is not asking anyone for anything to redress his own disability or to treat him any differently than any other Texan trolling for votes. He certainly has not made a special plea for disabled voters to support him,” wrote Rucker, a native of Wichita Falls like Abbott. “His base, it appears, are hardcore, government-leery Texas conservatives, not the `diversity base’ that elected President Obama, which includes the most vocal leaders of the disability community.”

But Rucker doesn’t gainsay the positive power of Abbott’s success.

“Whatever its impact, politically or culturally, Abbott belies every stereotype disabled people have been trying to eradicate for well over 100 years,” Rucker wrote. “He is not a victim, not deviant or strange, not sweet and ineffectual, not a burden, and not isolated and alone.”

But Rucker was troubled by the story of Archer Hadley, the senior at Austin High School with the Abbott bumper sticker on the back of his wheelchair, who set out to raise $40,000 (he ended up raising $80,000) to install automatic doors at the high school so he wouldn’t have to depend on someone else to open doors for him. On the first day back to school in January, Abbott came to Austin High to salute Hadley, who, he said, had learned from his mother what he had learned from his own mother: “There are two words that do not belong together in the state of Texas, and those two words are, ‘I can’t.’”

What bothered Rucker, he said in an interview this month, was, “Why does a kid have to raise $40,000 so he can get into his high school?”

FDR, George Wallace

While it is true that FDR did his best to conceal his use of a wheelchair, James Tobin said that does not mean he concealed his disability.

Tobin, a journalism professor at Miami University of Ohio, is the author of “The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency.” In the book, he recounts the stunning public drama of Roosevelt’s return to the Democratic National Convention stage in 1924 — four years after he had accepted the party’s nomination for vice president — this time, after polio, to nominate Al Smith for president, delivering the speech in his trademark clarion tones even as he trembled in pain to stand at the lectern.

As reported by the Louisville Courier-Journal, “There was nothing at the Democratic Convention more inspiring than the heroism of Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was the nominator that loomed large in the picture, an invalid on crutches, perhaps in pain, who conquered the frailties of the body by sheer power of will. … The world abhors the quitter who in his full strength goes down and will not get up. It admires the man who fights to the last and dies with his boots on. Franklin D. Roosevelt showed that this was the stuff he was made of.”

In private and public, Tobin said Roosevelt’s struggle with polio defined him.

“He told this story. It transformed him as a political figure. No longer was he this rich Harvard boy who had a great name and was very charming,” Tobin said. “Now he could tell the story of this enormous comeback. He had proved his mettle, proved his strength of character. People would have never believed that of him before.”

Wallace also defied expectations by staying in public life even after taking five bullets from Arthur Bremer’s gun.

As described by the Encyclopedia of Alabama, “While he sought treatment for the paralysis and complications from the shooting, Wallace suffered deep depressions and became a born-again Christian. But his prior good health, a strict regimen of physical therapy, and the belief that others considered him washed up politically brought him back fighting. A year after the assassination attempt, he stood strapped to a podium and addressed the Alabama legislature on local issues. The amazing and emotional event secured his political comeback.”

‘A more intriguing figure’

“Life stories are important,” said Carney, and Abbott’s is “a good life story.”

There are as few photographs of Abbott without a wheelchair as there are photographs of FDR in a wheelchair.

“He was never seen in public in a wheelchair,” Tobin said of Roosevelt. “That would have been a stigmatizing symbol. In that day and age, it was seen as a really powerful symbol of ill health and invalidism. If you were in a wheelchair it meant that you were in a hospital or sanitarium. The symbolism was too raw.”

“He felt as if he had to show he could walk however awkwardly or however actually unnecessary it was, he had to show it for political purposes,” Tobin said. And, with braces on his legs, a cane in one hand and a son or an aide holding his other arm, he could walk as far as a block.

Most New Yorkers, most Americans, Tobin said, knew their governor and president was “lame,” they just didn’t know how profoundly so.

Carney, whose mother was in a wheelchair almost his whole life, said that for Abbott’s staff it means a little more advance work.

But for Abbott, “it doesn’t hinder him in any way,” and for his audiences, “it probably makes him a more intriguing figure. Maybe you listen a little more carefully. You pay more attention in the beginning. He’s more than just another guy walking on the stage.”

Abbott’s usual ice-breaker: “I know what you’ve gotta be thinking: How slow was that guy running that he got hit by a tree?”

“There may be people who vote against a guy in a wheelchair; I think some people vote for a guy in a wheelchair,” Carney said.

What he knows, Carney said, is that Texans aren’t going to vote for a liberal in a wheelchair. But if the person in the chair shares their values, “they’re going to give him a fair shot.”

The empty wheelchair

Then came the Wendy Davis campaign’s October surprise, an attack ad that began with a stark, lingering image of an empty wheelchair and an equally stark voice-over that began: “A tree fell on Greg Abbott. He sued and got millions. Since then, he’s spent his career working against other victims.”

“I don’t think anybody anticipated the Wendy Davis campaign would run that ad,” Carney said. “The empty wheelchair was the end of that race. There was no chance of them ever getting close after that ad.”

The Davis campaign called the ad “Justice,” but it drew ire from all quarters.

Appearing on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox, Abbott played to those offended sensibilities.

“My reaction is that if she wants to attack a guy in a wheelchair, that’s her prerogative,” Abbott said.

Frieden was disappointed by that response.

“I thought Abbott got bad advice that he responded the way he did,” Frieden said. “He had the opportunity to gain some points on that. I don’t think he did, because he played like he was hurt, and a lot of his constituency responded like that.”

The justice of the Davis ad, said Frieden, was that it didn’t coddle Abbott.

“I prefer to think of it as a brilliant step. Why not? It’s politics. It’s fair game, and if they’re going to treat Gov. Abbott with kid gloves, so to speak, simply because he has a disability, then I don’t think he’s achieved what he’s capable of achieving.”

Frieden recalled the merciless fun “Saturday Night Live” had mocking David Patterson, New York’s first blind governor.

That, he said, is what progress looks like.

“I cannot wait for ‘Saturday Night Live’ to do that with Greg Abbott,” Frieden said.


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