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A Tale of Democratic Political Frailty, Fractiousness and Human Dignity



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The Institute’s faculty and staff have long been interested in the services the Commonwealth provides its citizens with disabilities, whether those characteristics are physical or mental in character, or both. We have, for example, developed analyses of a share of the state’s programs for military veterans with disabilities as well as of its facilities for those with disabilities residing in long-term care situations. Unfortunately, Virginia does not have a track record of providing generous support to these individuals and their families. In this regard, the state has treated such citizens no differently than other minority groups who reside within it, including, especially, African Americans, who have historically been the target of overt discrimination and neglect by Commonwealth policy-makers. This propensity reflects a deeper and uglier democratic current that has been much in evidence lately in state, national and international politics alike: discriminatory exploitation of demographic difference to gather or ensure political power.

One of the most obvious issues in the 2016 Presidential campaign was President-elect Donald Trump’s frequent violations of a variety of long standing democratic norms. Those breaches often took the form of attacks on specific groups of people. In addition to those with disabilities, Trump mocked African Americans, women, journalists and immigrants and those who had been tortured as prisoners of war, among other groups, while also calling for renewed broad scale U.S. use of torture. The overarching question his behavior raised was whether publicly adopted democratic values of respect for human and civil rights, civility and equal treatment of all could withstand a continued onslaught of demagogic rhetoric.

Unfortunately, Trump’s behavior is not an isolated phenomenon. The United States is hardly alone just now in experiencing a fresh fierce popular backlash among a share of its population that has shown itself willing to discriminate against minorities in its midst and to disregard long-established principles of civic behavior to alleviate its felt anxieties. The sordid treatment by the GOP presidential candidate of people with disabilities in particular highlighted the fragility of their long-fought efforts to secure their civil rights and recognition of their innate human dignity. Trump’s public display of cruelty likewise illuminated this population’s general dependence on community support to secure living conditions that allow them to maximize their abilities, whatever those might be.

The social questions exposed by Trump’s callousness and callowness during the campaign are not new. Individuals with disabilities have historically been mistreated and denied their human and democratic rights in this nation. Indeed, genuine breakthroughs in laws guaranteeing their rights as human beings and citizens in the United States did not occur until the 1960s, and social attitudes have shifted even more slowly than has the law. The battle to secure some semblance of equality and dignity in policy and in social norms and mores for citizens with disabilities in America has been long and tortuously difficult. In addition, that struggle has been rendered more arduous by the nation’s adoption of neoliberal norms since the 1970s, which encourage weighing everything against its possible market value. For the relatively large share of people with disabilities who cannot work or who can be employed only with support in poorly compensated positions, this perspectival yardstick implies inferior or sharply diminished social standing. Such attitudes, coupled with increasingly successful appeals to popular prejudice and efforts to “other” minorities by Trump and other political leaders, diminish the impetus to office holders to ensure that individuals with disabilities receive needed services.

In many ways, the struggle to realize legal and social equality for those with disabilities parallels the fight for such status by African Americans. As with that group, the issue has never been the realization of statutory claims alone, but securing the social change that must support legal standing if those legislative strictures are ever fully to be realized. Many states today, for example, have imposed voter identification restrictions, which disproportionately adversely affect African Americans, precisely to prevent them from voting. This has occurred in the name of cynically pressed and empirically non-existent assertions of voter fraud, despite statutes guaranteeing voting and civil rights. That this phenomenon is occurring and that such initiatives continue more than 50 years after passage of national civil and voting rights guarantees, is chilling testimony to how difficult it is to cement social change.

It will always be tempting for would-be demagogues to use the differences evident among members of minority groups, including those with disabilities, to demonize and vilify such individuals to galvanize political support, as indeed, Trump did during the campaign. Such othering will ever be built on perceived difference and can find its way into discriminatory policy-making and implementation in subtle ways. I here examine briefly the case of the state’s ongoing treatment of Virginians with disabilities as an example of this larger phenomenon.

In Virginia, for citizens with disabilities, this tendency has revealed itself in sustained reluctance by lawmakers to ensure such individuals’ civil rights and political equality. In fact, the Commonwealth moved so slowly to provide community-based living options for its residents with disabilities, as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) and other laws, that the Department of Justice finally sued to prompt state action in 2010. Virginia settled the suit by entering into a consent decree in 2012 agreeing to take steps to remedy its long-term neglect to provide such services to this population.[1]

And, indeed, the state has provided the decree’s stipulated required funding ($112 million) slowly to address the 11,000-person backlog of legally eligible individuals with disabilities who are not now receiving community-based services in the Commonwealth, decreasing that logjam by some 4,000 persons by 2021.[2] That increased support which, notably, will reduce the backlog by only 36 percent during the next five years, nonetheless leaves Virginia ranked in the lowest tier of such compensation/aid among the 50 states, despite the Commonwealth’s relative wealth.[3] Moreover, these new funds have arrived with a perverse twist for many already receiving services. Virginia has adopted an assessment of individual needs called the Supports Intensity Scale (variants are now also used in 22 other states) that seeks to determine how independently those with disabilities can function in their daily lives, and on the basis of that judgment, provide only such aid for helpers and direct support as those individuals may “actually” require. This process has not resulted in continued legislatively supported increases in funding to support community-based services that Virginia chose not to offer for decades. Instead, and apparently increasingly, it has led to “assessment determinations” that are reducing existing aid for individuals already receiving support. This is all occurring in the name of efficiency, and families are not allowed to appeal outcomes on behalf of their loved ones on substantive grounds.[4]

On its face, this may sound reasonable and appropriate until one asks why any of the people presently receiving assistance should lose support when the relevant policy concern is not their aid, but assistance for individuals too-long denied it. The answer, program efficiency rhetoric notwithstanding, is that these people are a politically vulnerable population that can be so treated. What seems to be occurring in practice is that the Commonwealth intends to minimize what it must expend to comply with the consent decree it signed with the Federal government to address its long-term unwillingness to sustain this population by reducing its already comparatively low support for current program service recipients wherever it can, and using those funds to help to trim its long wait list of those eligible for services.

As I noted above, this specific Virginia case provides an example of a cultural and very democratic propensity to reflect the general citizenry’s ignorance and prejudices in governance by de facto, if not de jure, “othering” those perceived as “different” in its midst. While Trump drew on this human inclination to mobilize voters around abstract negative images of groups he scapegoated, in enacted policy it tends to operate in a subtler fashion via a routine disinclination to abide by statutory commitments and by a continual reluctance to provide the services necessary to secure the legal and civil rights and political equality of those targeted. More particularly, as here, this willingness to deny others rights typically is built on social attitudes and rationalizations that “they are not like us” and therefore unworthy of public support.

What is lost in this rhetorical shuffle are the very real needs of these individuals, their status and rights as members of the democratic community and most importantly, their human dignity. There is no question that Virginia has the financial wherewithal to provide robust support for its citizens with disabilities and their families, but it has long elected not to do so and this lack of political will is rooted finally and firmly in a discriminatory impulse that those requiring aid are “other.”

In his recent campaign, Trump chose to employ divisive and dismissive rhetoric aimed at this ugly human disposition to hate the other in his attacks, and the Republican Party has repeatedly shown itself capable, in the name of the pursuit or maintenance of political power, of working to undermine the civil rights of those it fears will not support it at the ballot box. As Anne Frank memorably wrote, “There is in people simply an urge to destroy, an urge to kill, to murder and rage.”[5]   In such situations, citizens who realize the primal significance of human rights to self-governance and the preservation of freedom must persistently protest when lawmakers and their political parties refuse to work to realize the aspirations of extant law or otherwise work actively to undermine the rights of a share of the citizens they represent—on whatever grounds. Human beings possess a boundless capacity for hate and depravity, and individuals who wish to preserve self-governance and human rights must be ever vigilant if they are to ensure that popular assaults on these fundaments predicated on that capacity are not successful.


[1] The Americans with Disabilities Act, website. No date. ;

[2] Antonio Olivo, “Expanded Disability Aid Plan could cut Individual Services,” The Roanoke Times, December 24, 2016, Virginia, p.1.

[3] United Cerebral Palsy, “The Case for Inclusion, 2015,”, p.9

[4] Antonio Olivo, “Expanded Disability Aid Plan could cut Individual Services,” The Roanoke Times, December 24, 2016, Virginia, p.6.

[5] Melissa Muller, Anne Frank: The Biography (Revised and Expanded Edition), New York: Bloomsbury, 1998, p. 334.

Publication Date

January 3, 2017