The Democratic Convention, and the problematic narrative of overcoming disabilities

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Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the fourth day of the Democratic National Convention, Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020, at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Del. President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden are entering a 64-day sprint to the finish that is widely expected to be one of the most turbulent and chaotic periods in the modern history of American politics. Each side cast the other as an existential threat to America’s future as they offered voters starkly different versions of reality over the last two weeks of carefully scripted conventions. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Can a disabled person be president? The general public doesn’t seem to think so. At the Democratic convention a few weeks ago, a teenager named Braydon Harrison gave a moving speech about Joe Biden. Harrison, who has a stutter, was talking about how meeting Biden had inspired him. In the past, Biden has discussed how he had a stutter as a child, talking about it in-depth in an interesting interview by The Atlantic this year. The interview also that looked at the fact that there are times Biden still does stutter.

Harrison’s speech was excellent; in it, he discussed how Biden had given him some tips that he used to make giving his speeches easier, which was certainly something that was important for the teen. But Harrison’s speech, and the media’s return to talking about Biden’s “struggle” with stuttering also returned us to what has become a difficult point in the disabled community: the media framing that Biden had to overcome his disability in order to be where he is, is part of the troubling way most people view disability.  

the media framing that Biden had to overcome his disability in order to be where he is, is part of the troubling way most people view disability.  

Biden’s “overcoming” of his stutter, and the fact that this is all the media focuses on when discussing it, is a reminder that the mainstream media still views disability as something that must be overcome. Stuttering is a speech disability, and disabled people are told every day of their lives that they are supposed to become non-disabled — that they are supposed to forever work toward being normal. 

That narrative is extremely ableist. Many disabled people are already forced to act like they are not disabled. Autistic people are tortured in applied behavior analysis (ABA) with the hope of making them normal and removing autistic traits like flapping and not showing eye contact. The problem is that ABA has widely been considered incredibly abusive by the autistic community. While parents of autistic children tend to support it, autistic adults have explained over and over that ABA’s techniques are very abusive. 

Autistic children who are in ABA are taught to hide their disability, to act as if they are not disabled, with no thought spared for the fact that this is extremely painful to them. They are expected, as all disabled people are, to work towards being not-disabled. Joe Biden’s “overcoming” of his stutter, a stutter that he does sometimes still seem to struggle with, once again pushes the narrative that disability is something that must be overcome — like an inability to play football — rather than simply being part of who someone is.  

Joe Biden’s “overcoming” of his stutter, a stutter that he does sometimes still seem to struggle with, once again pushes the narrative that disability is something that must be overcome — like an inability to play football — rather than simply being part of who someone is.  

It is sometimes difficult to balance the understanding that Joe Biden is allowed to want to change something about himself, in this case a stutter, but the idea that he should HAVE to want that is bad. Many people want to change something about themselves; they get plastic surgery or change their name or get a new hobby. And Biden is absolutely allowed to not want to speak with a stutter, and to be proud of something that he has at least improved, if not entirely overcome.  

But the narrative that the media seems determined to push, that he “overcame” this disability so he could become a presidential candidate, gives a very bad message to disabled people. It says, you can run for office, maybe even for president, but you have to “overcome” a large part of who you are to do it. Can you imagine if Pete Buttiegieg was made to perform as if he was straight before he was able to run for elected office? There would be public outrage, because for most people it is no longer acceptable to try to force a gay person to be straight. But a disabled person is supposed to do that, supposed to change a fundamental part of who they are to be more palatable to able-bodied, neurotypical people. 

The way our society looks at disability and disabled people needs to change in a fundamental way. For too long, disability has been viewed as a negative, as a bad thing that a person has to try to ‘cope’ with at worst, and at best overcome to become normal. That narrative needs to be replaced by an understanding that disability exists and that disabled people are allowed to exist as disabled people, without spending every moment of their lives hating themselves because they can’t change and become normal.  

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