The disabled legislator’s fight for basic accommodation is all too familiar. (Illustration by Rachal Duggan.)
State Representative Jimmy Anderson is paralyzed from the neck down with limited use of his arms and hands. Due to related health complications, Anderson has been asking leaders in the State Legislature to let him phone into committee meetings he has difficulty attending. Anderson, a Democrat who represents the large chunk of Madison’s southern suburbs in Wisconsin’s 47th Assembly District, began making his requests to Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos’ office in January through Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz.
That should be it. There should be no further justification required, there should be no further questions asked. A disabled man seeks reasonable accommodations at the job to which he was duly elected. End of a non-story.
Instead, Vos’ office dismissed the requests, and Vos, in his endless quest for new depths of vindictive political gamesmanship, has gone out of his way to denigrate Anderson. Instead, Anderson is left to contemplate whether the Americans with Disabilities Act will protect him (which it may not, because Anderson is an elected official and not an employee). Instead, Anderson has to go to the media in attempts to shame the gatekeeping Vos into inclusion.
Vos, in response, told Anderson in a letter last week that he finds it “disrespectful” for someone to communicate via telephone when individuals are “taking the time out of their day” to attend legislative meetings in person.
I assume “their day” doesn’t include a tedious, full-body skin check for pressure sores. Or laying in bed, waiting for someone to assist them in the simple act of getting out of bed. Or an hour or more spent conducting a stringent program necessary in order to have a simple bowel movement.
But yes, tell me more about how precious time is.
I hesitate to enumerate those simple activities of daily living as a disabled person, which may or may not even be a part of Anderson’s specific routine. Vos is not owed and certainly does not deserve that explanation. But the burden of education falls, as it often does, to the disabled.
I do not believe Vos is even interested in actually being informed about what it takes for a disabled person to fulfill the duties of elected office. After Anderson turned to the papers, Vos offered to allow paper ballot voting and provide a videographer for the committee meetings, which would still preclude Anderson from actually participating or asking questions. While offering accommodations that still didn’t solve the actual problem, Vos critiqued the means of Anderson’s requests.
“It calls into question your seriousness. Instead of resorting to political grandstanding, you could have called my personal cell phone at any time to discuss this matter,” Vos wrote in a letter to Anderson.
His Larry David-esque use of “grandstanding” during this particular exchange aside, here Vos is expecting what so many expect of the disabled, and of other underrepresented communities:
Why can’t you make your demands more politely?
Why can’t you be calm when you ask for basic dignities and inclusion?
Why can’t you protest in a more respectful manner at a more respectful time?
Why can’t you do it the right way?
The “right” way, of course, is whatever way those in power decide it is at that moment. In this case, making requests via Hintz months ago was insufficient. Anderson should have called the Speaker directly, humbling himself before the Great and Powerful Vos. I reject that notion. Ignore the man behind the curtain. Anderson owes no one justification or explanation of his needs.
Inclusion is not frivolous special treatment for which we should have to beg. Inclusion is the minimum a decent society owes us.
During a disability rights lobbying event in Washington years ago, I attempted to explain how important individually-adapted equipment is in order to maintain any standard of living for many disabled people. I hoped to get protection of “Custom Rehabilitation Technology” into Medicare law. It seemed so obvious to me that the quadriplegic I spoke alongside would not be able to get around in my manual wheelchair—he required specific accommodations.
I told them, “I am one of the lucky ones.” By lucky I mean that I’m permanently paralyzed, have no sensation or motor function below the chest level, will never walk again, and only have public incontinence issues every other month or so. And by lucky I mean that if my spinal cord injury were inches higher, I’d have no use of my hands, or perhaps I’d be cognitively disabled. By lucky, I mean alive.
I’m grateful for my life and the relative ease with which I navigate it. I’d venture to guess that as the sole survivor of a car accident with an intoxicated driver, Jimmy Anderson counts himself lucky as well.
Should that be enough for us? Lucky just to be here? Or do we deserve the extravagance of being able to do our jobs? Could Jimmy Anderson possibly deserve the lavish accommodation of phoning into a meeting?
Neither of us are lucky to live in a state where Robin Vos wields political power. Neither of us are lucky to be forced to explain, educate, or grovel—in just the right way—to simply be included. I’d also bet that neither of us is surprised that we have to.