March 1, 2005

Between The Right and a Hard Place

To promote disability rights, activists strike an unlikely alliance.

David Goldenberg

"Million Dollar Baby" cleaned up at the Oscars, and a lot of people are angry. And not just Rush Limbaugh and co. Disability-rights activists, many of them liberals, were disgusted by the ending of the movie, in which Maggie, a boxer, decides to end her life after an in-ring accident has left her paralyzed. Indeed, disability-rights supporters have increasingly found themselves on the side of the cultural right in several recent and heated debates over assisted suicide. The two groups have come together to protest planned "right to death" laws in several states, along with cases of physician-assisted suicides. It�s a complicated situation for the activists, as they align themselves with the same conservatives with whom they often fight on issues such as discrimination and the government�s role in creating accessibility.

Right now, the disability-rights activists need all the help they can get, says Mary Johnson, the editor of Ragged Edge magazine, who has covered the disability experience in America for the last twenty years. She compares the current situation to the struggle for gay rights in America in the 1940s. �There are pockets of activism,� Johnson says, �but most people are still in the closet. An awful lot of disabled people do not consider themselves disabled.�

According to the US Census Bureau, almost 20% of the American population is disabled. That�s 50 million people, a larger minority population than that of either African-Americans or homosexuals. And though most disabled people likely agree that people with disabilities suffer inequitable treatment, they share little other common ideology, Johnson says. In the most recent presidential election, a Harris Interactive poll found that disabled voters split between the candidates in proportions similar to that of the overall electorate. An article in Orbit Magazine, a publication of the United Spinal Association, found that while disabled activists remain liberal, the larger disabled population is becoming more conservative.

Even disabled-rights activists cannot seem to agree on the best course of action to rid the country of inequitable treatment. According to Johnson, they are split over whether the best way to create change is through education or legislation, and they have had difficulty getting sympathetic coverage in the press. Disabled people are tired of being portrayed in the media as noble savages who deserve respect just for making it through the day, Johnson says. �[Disabled-rights] lobbyists think it�s useless to work with the media,� she adds, explaining that articles often omit the nuances of their cause.

But in failing to bring their case to the media, these lobbyists seem to be hurting their cause. �Disability activists in this country would say their take on lots of different things is never part of the public discussion,� said Johnson. In a recent article, Johnson argues that even the supposedly liberal media—which one might expect to promote the disabled-rights agenda—has simply lumped advocates' stance on assisted suicide in with that of cultural conservatives.

So why should the disabled community spend their time berating Clint Eastwood�s movie, considering that the target is a work of fiction? �I think it can be good to focus on mass cultural icons,� said Johnson. �You get attention.�

Disabled-rights supporters think that �right to die� laws have a disparate impact—meaning that the laws only apply to one group of people, sort of like the poll taxes that the Reconstruction south once used to prevent blacks from voting. Advocates feel that once assisted-suicide laws become prevalent, there will be a subtle pressure put on disabled people to end their lives in order to reduce the burden on their families. And they think that Million Dollar Baby legitimizes the stance that it is better to be dead than disabled. (Never mind that artists don't sanction nor recommend the behavior of all of their fictional characters.)

Conservatives, on the other hand, value �the culture of life,� which holds that all life is sacred and that only God should decide when people die. Disability activists tend to disagree. �The disabled-rights activists would say that if we had a society in which people with disabilities had full rights and access and the state gave 24-hour care so that there was no burden, then we would say �There is a right to die,� " Johnson says.

�They wish the cultural right would butt out,� she adds. �The reason Maggie is killing herself is because she�s anti-disability, not anti-life.�

But it�s not so easy to tell the cultural right to back off, especially because it commands such influence in the government and has access to large amounts of capital. Johnson mentions the alliance between the right and rights advocates in Florida, where the husband of a disabled woman claims she wants to die. A judge recently ruled that Terri Schiavo, who has severe brain damage, can have her feeding tube removed on March 18. Her parents, who think Terri's husband is acting against her wishes, have filed several motions in an attempt to keep her alive. (USA Today) �If you�re in a position where you want Terri Schiavo to remain alive,� Johnson says. �Who are you to turn away people with money?�

In an article for Ragged Edge, Ingrid Tischer advances the point as she hammers women�s rights groups for failing to take up Schiavo�s cause. She writes: �Show some respect to the activists with disabilities who did what I shrink from: Hang out with the religious right if it meant saving the life of a woman with a disability.�

The religious right, in turn, appears to have no problem embracing this particular cause of the disabled as its own. On websites such as, writers happily take up the position that Terri Schiavo is being discriminated against because of her disability while at the same time linking to reports bashing gay marriage and abortion rights.

�The sad thing is not that conservative people are working with us,� Johnson says. �It�s that progressive people are not.�

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Article by David Goldenberg

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