Human Rights Depend on Democracy: Protect it

Disability is a bipartisan human-rights issue, and the stakes for people with disabilities are huge if democracy is compromised in any way.

January 21, 2021

Published in MinnPost on January 20, 2021

By Amy Hewitt

A video clip circulated on social media last week showing people with disabilities being forcibly removed by police from a congressional hearing. The caption, clearly designed to garner outrage: "Disabled Trump supporters get arrested for storming U.S. Capitol." Two days later, Reuters ran a fact-checking piece that identified the clip as a 2017 Senate hearing on the Affordable Care Act, where about 200 disability rights activists protested a proposed amendment to the legislation that would have made significant cuts to Medicaid.

In 2017, protesters were ripped from their wheelchairs, dragged from the Senate hearing room, handcuffed, and pepper sprayed. Capitol police arrested 181 of them. Their crime: disrupting the hearing with their chants as they fought to keep people with disabilities from being re-institutionalized due to the loss of vital home-based services.

How stunning and painful it was to watch the actual attack on our U.S. Capitol this month, when a souvenir-grabbing mob was essentially allowed into the chamber where legislators were beginning to confirm the votes from November's presidential election. The ensuing siege over the next several hours left several dead and our hallowed core of democracy in shambles, but it resulted in relatively few arrests. CNN's Eliott C. McLaughlin pointed out the stark difference in police response during several other protest events, including the 2017 Senate hearing.

It's impossible not to compare how these mostly white extremists were initially accommodated with how people with disabilities - and those standing up for Black lives in the wake of police brutality - have fared. Because silence is complicity, I am compelled to point out the troubling path that these disparities portend.

Ableism and racism continue to plague our nation, and they boil over just as we are fighting the pandemic on uneven ground.

People with disabilities and people of color are dying in disproportionately high numbers. And for people with disabilities, reports of blanket, unlawful do-not-resuscitate orders make the dark days of eugenics and mass institutionalization a not-too-distant memory. Those in hospitals are not getting the intensive interventions and treatments that others do because of incorrect assumptions that they cannot make informed decisions. Loved ones continue to struggle to advocate for their family members' well-being. And people with disabilities who live in congregate care settings are dying at the highest rates of all.

On top of all that, many people with disabilities simply don't have enough resources to live, a problem that began long before the pandemic but has worsened. We haven't even begun to see all of the pandemic's economic fallout, but we know that people with disabilities have dramatically higher unemployment rates than any other group. Of the people with intellectual and developmental disabilities who have jobs, many of them had to give up those jobs in order to comply with group home rules limiting exposure.

As I've struggled in recent days to wrap my head around the insurrection at the Capitol, I come back to the simple truth that disability does not discriminate among political ideologies. Disability is a bipartisan human-rights issue, and the stakes for people with disabilities are huge if democracy is compromised in any way. Protecting that democracy is our best chance of protecting human rights.

Amy Hewitt, Ph.D., is the director of the Institute on Community Integration at the University of Minnesota.