The New Commissioner for the Administration on Disabilities: Misunderstanding and Ableism Within the Disabled Community

     It is disheartening to hear that Melissa Ortiz was appointed to the position of Commissioner of the Administration on Disabilities. She is a disabled “disability advocate” who founded the grassroots organization Able Americans and a Republican supporter. Her alignment with the Republican Party per se does not bother me, but many of her beliefs perpetuate misconceptions about the disabled community–a community for which she claims she supports.  

     While I respect and admire Ortiz’s push for accessibility, her beliefs that all disabled people can be self-sufficient is ignorant and excludes severe physical, mental, and behavioral disabilities. While she may be able to function without many of the additional expenses that come with having a disability (i.e. a wheelchair, crutches, communication devices, personal care attendants, home renovations, personal tutors, interpreters, frequent doctor’s appointments, therapy sessions, and emergency room visits, ramps, elevators, feeding devices, modified vehicle and driving lessons etc.), many disabled Americans cannot. Unfortunately, many insurance companies do not cover all of these expenses, and unfortunately, many disabled people cannot work full time jobs due to medical issues, lack of transportation, or inability to complete certain tasks. Ms. Ortiz is no better than a nonverbal autistic adult who cannot work, yet she assumes he should and can take care of himself. This is unrealistic. Disabilities are diverse–not all disabled people can do what able-bodies can do. Ms. Ortiz does not seem to comprehend or even care about this.  

     It is important for Ortiz and anyone who wants to advocate for disabled people to understand who disabled people are, and to consider an array of abilities, needs, and complications. She is not merely representing herself or people with similar abilities, yet she seems to believe that in her Time Magazine article. Not every disabled person can be independent, and despite her negative views on Obamacare, it has helped many disabled people (many whom I even know) gain the support they require just to function. I have friends who cannot work–they need funding from the government just for survival.  

     Ortiz’s quip that she does not vote “with her womanhood or her wheelchair” makes for a catchy line, but misses the mark. As a disabled American, I do not just think about myself and my own needs when I vote. I consider the people who are voiceless–the ones who cannot advocate for themselves and are often abused and neglected by the system. These are the people whom Republicans constantly think of as burdens on the system. Regardless of how much someone’s life costs and how much or little they contribute to our country, they are human. 

       Ortiz asserts that mocking of her disability has helped her “grow a thicker skin.” As someone who has been pushed out of the way and sneered “Move out of the way, cripple,” at, it is clear that she does not see how the president’s outward mocking of disabilities can make ableists feel more comfortable. I have experienced more threats, slurs, and slammed doors in my face this year than I have in all of my twenty years of life. For Ortiz to only consider the effects of verbal abuse is narrow-minded and naive. Discrimination usually begins with words.  

      I desperately wanted to root for a fellow disabled American’s success, but I cannot. The reality is that many disabled people could lose their healthcare, their ability to attend public schools, their safety, and their life as a result of Republican policies, but because Ortiz is self-sufficient, they should just suck it up and overcome their disabilities to become Able Americans.

*Images from ADAPT’s Facebook page

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