I'm disabled -- and Greg Abbott is wrong: Why I loved Wendy Davis' ad

As a disabled Texan, I couldn’t believe Wendy Davis ran that wheelchair ad -- but not for the reason you think

Published October 29, 2014 12:30PM (EDT)

A photo of the author with Wendy Davis
A photo of the author with Wendy Davis

In the early morning of Nov. 5, 2014, when the confetti is being vacuumed from the conference room floors and the trash bags are being stuffed with half-eaten finger foods, empty beer bottles, and plastic wine glasses, some may argue in their political autopsy reports that the first seven seconds of an otherwise typical campaign commercial were the single most determinative factor in the race for governor in the second largest state in the country.

It may be said, probably by smart people who get paid to say things like this on television, that Wendy Davis, the Democratic firebrand who catapulted, overnight, into rock-star fame, lost any hope of winning the moment she decided to attack her Republican opponent, Greg Abbott, for being disabled.

As a disabled American currently living in Dallas and enrolled in my final year of law school at Southern Methodist University, I couldn’t believe, at first, that Wendy Davis had decided to run the now infamous “empty wheelchair” ad, but not for the reasons that offended so many Republicans and enraged the Abbott campaign.  Amelia Chase, Abbott’s spokesperson, told CNN, “It is challenging to find language strong enough to condemn Sen. Davis' disgusting television ad, which represents a historic low for someone seeking to represent Texans. Sen. Davis' ad shows a disturbing lack of judgment from a desperate politician, and completely disqualifies her from seeking higher office in Texas.”  Three days later, Greg Abbott told Sean Hannity of Fox News, “If she [Davis] wants to attack the guy in a wheelchair, that’s her prerogative.”

Unlike the Abbott campaign, who apparently considered a seven-second clip of an empty wheelchair to be the worst thing ever done in the history of Texas politics, and unlike Greg Abbott himself,  when I first saw the ad, I paid little attention to the empty wheelchair.  Although I can walk without assistance, I have used wheelchairs and mobility scooters, from time to time, for all of my life.  It would be absurd for a disabled person like me to ever be repulsed or offended by the mere image of a wheelchair, and besides, Greg Abbott never seemed ashamed by his wheelchair; he featured it prominently in a number of his campaign commercials.

What I couldn’t believe was that Davis' campaign had decided to run a commercial exposing Abbott’s ruthlessness and hypocrisy on issues that were so critically important to people like me, disability and victim’s rights. A friend of mine who works as a junior-level staffer in the Davis campaign called me the day the commercial was released. He wanted to know, off-the-record, as a friend, as someone living in Texas with a disability, what I really thought. “Finally,” I told him. “It’s about time.”

Greg Abbott’s record isn’t exactly a secret. Ask any lawyer or judge in Texas. Ask any victim’s rights advocate or any disability rights advocate.  The multimillion-dollar settlement he received as a result of his injuries has been known for nearly 30 years, and earlier this year, the Dallas Morning News, in a story titled “Greg Abbott Pushes to Block Disabled Texans’ Lawsuits Against State,” reported extensively on his record.

“In a series of legal cases in his three terms, Abbott’s office has fought a blind pharmacy professor in Amarillo who wanted reflective tape on the stairs to her office; two deaf defendants in Laredo who asked for a qualified sign language interpreter in their courtroom; and a woman with an amputated leg,” Christy Hoppe reports. “In that case, the state argued she was not disabled because she had a prosthetic limb.”

As attorney general, Greg Abbott aggressively fought against efforts to force the state to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act. This isn’t a matter of opinion; it’s a matter of fact.  In that respect, for those who pay attention to the news in Texas, Wendy Davis’ commercial wasn’t exactly revelatory, but for those of us who believe in the importance of laws like the Americans With Disabilities Act, which was signed by a president from Texas, it was hugely reassuring.

My friend with the Davis campaign told me that they were getting roundly criticized for using the image of an empty wheelchair at the beginning of the commercial. Even Mother Jones, a reliably liberal publication, jumped in, chastising Davis for cynically reminding voters of Greg Abbott’s disability. It was the kind of specious argument that can only be made by someone who had never even heard of Greg Abbott until the moment he watched the commercial behind his laptop in some apartment on the East Coast.

“If y’all want me to help out,” I told my friend, “I’m happy to do whatever I can.”

Two days later, I sat in front of a podium in an old shopping mall in Fort Worth, staring into a sea of cameras and only a foot away from Wendy Davis, whom I’d met just 30 seconds before I began speaking.

I drafted my own remarks. I didn’t want to read from a set of canned campaign talking points. This was personal to me. I spoke about the importance of empathy, of recognizing your own privileges, and of using your gifts to help others less fortunate. That may seem like a basic Sunday school lesson for many Americans, but it seemed appropriate.

If I’d had the time, I probably would have told the media that I simply could not understand why people seemed to be so offended by the image of an empty wheelchair. Why was Greg Abbott offended? It didn’t make sense. Political campaigns are adept at manufacturing outrage, of course, but the Abbott campaign’s response -- the idea that an empty wheelchair was the lowest point in Texas political history -- wasn’t just absurdly hyperbolic; it seemed cowardly to me.

Instead of addressing the substantive issues raised by the Davis campaign ad, Abbott and the conservative media in tow (along with Mother Jones) wanted the public to believe, somewhat circularly, that Wendy Davis should be ashamed of using a wheelchair in her ad because wheelchairs were symbols of failure and impotence. To me, the Abbott campaign’s response and the general reaction among conservative pundits seemed deliberately intended to perpetuate pernicious stereotypes about the disabled.

Abbott, after all, had been elected statewide not once, not twice, but five times throughout his career, each time in a wheelchair.  Voters knew who he was. But instead of actually answering questions about his record on disability rights, which is what a serious politician would do, Abbott went on national television and claimed that his opponent just wanted to “attack the guy in the wheelchair.”

Only a few months ago, this same man told the people of Texas that he had a “spine of steel,” yet after seven seconds of an empty wheelchair appearing on television, he clutched his pearls and acted as if Big Bad Wendy Davis was picking on him for being disabled.  The truth, of course, is that Wendy Davis was rightfully pointing out this man’s hypocrisy and his dismal record on the issue. If anyone is guilty of picking on folks for being disabled, it’s Greg Abbott, a man who loves the Americans With Disabilities Act so much that he has fought against it almost every time he gets the chance.

I wanted to say all of this then, but now, I’m glad I didn’t. Because even though I’ve lived with cerebral palsy for my entire life, I learned something important about what it means to be a disabled American after that press conference.

I sat down while I delivered my remarks, because even though I can walk without assistance, my balance is awful; I’m prone to falling, and it’s almost impossible for me to stand in one place. I’d asked the campaign staff to help slide my chair 3 feet to the right, once I was done speaking. That way, I thought, would be risk-free. There was no possible way I would fall.  I wrapped up my remarks, nodded toward a staffer, and whispered, “Please help me slide over.” And everything went fine. It took all of three seconds; I was in place, and the next speaker took the podium.

I brought my mother along with me to the event. I thought it would be cool to introduce her to Wendy Davis. “Two strong Texan women,” I said. On our way back to Dallas, I browsed through my Twitter feed. I figured the event would have generated some chatter. I never anticipated, not in a million years, that the chatter would be about me and the other disabled Texans who appeared at the event, instead of what Sen. Davis had actually said.  Within the hour, there were dozens of tweets suggesting that Wendy Davis had used disabled people as “campaign props.”

I thought it was outrageous, almost comical. The very folks who were apoplectic about a commercial featuring an empty wheelchair, as if it was intended to “attack” someone for having a disability, were now, literally, attacking the disabled. I wrote a quick tweet, to no one in particular, “I am a human being. Not a campaign prop. I volunteered to speak because [Wendy Davis] is right.” The next day, for the first and likely the only time in my life, my impulsive tweet was the headline of an article in Salon and covered in the pages of the New York Times.

Only a few minutes after I pressed send, a friend of mine wrote me.

“Have you read the Free Beacon?”

“No, what is that?” I asked.

“It’s a website. They’re saying the Davis campaign dragged you across the stage.”

I was dumbfounded. A man named Andrew Stiles, writing for a publication I had never heard of,  apparently watched the entire event online, including my speech, and uploaded only the last 20 seconds, in which a Davis campaign staffer assists me in sliding my chair over. “Watch This Wendy Davis Staffer Drag a Disabled Man Across a Stage,” his headline read. The video clip was picked up by dozens of national conservative websites, and within only a day, it had been viewed more than 60,000 times.

Again, it is worth repeating: I asked to be assisted. If you pay close enough attention, you can see me nod and whisper to a staffer off-camera.

During the last week and a half, thousands of people, almost all of whom are complete and total strangers, have been publicly analyzing and speculating about me and my disability. It has been strange, discomfiting, depressing, infuriating, but also absolutely fascinating.

And it reinforced something I had suspected about that empty wheelchair commercial: No one is actually offended by the image of a wheelchair; they are just uncomfortable with it, in the same way they are uncomfortable with watching a man with cerebral palsy being slid in his chair to the side of a podium. Several strangers reached out to me to express how “sorry” they were that I had been “embarrassed.” I was never embarrassed; that’s just how I move.

“I’m sorry that I made you feel uncomfortable,” I responded, more times than I can count.

I am totally fine with who I am, and although my disability can sometimes be aggravating, I’ve never known life any other way. I roll with it.

The immediate, visceral reaction among conservatives all across the country to seeing a clip of me being slid in a chair 3 feet: not my problem.

The notion that political rallies and press events should be managed in a way to reduce camera time awarded to folks who look or move differently: not my problem either.

Some folks think a wheelchair is a sign of weakness: I think it's a sign of tenacity. Some folks may see a disabled guy being slid in a chair as poor stagecraft. I see it as real humanity.

By Lamar White

Lamar White, Jr. is a native of Alexandria, Louisiana, and has been writing about Louisiana politics for nearly a decade on his website, CenLamar. He has a juris doctor from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, a bachelors from Rice University in Houston, and is currently a doctoral candidate in political communication at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

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