Jackson, Shameful disability shaming


Let’s talk about who’s competent to do what

by Eric Jackson

I made the acquaintance of Muhammad Ali at a point in his life when the Parkinsonism was really setting in. He had difficulty speaking but was not a bit feeble minded.

It was no shocking revelation to me, as I grew up near Coco Solo Hospital and would play near where the ambulances came in, and where old men recovering from strokes — Captain Fenton, Mr. Kelly and others — would be taken in their wheelchairs to get off the ward and be exposed to and opine on little brats like me. Might not be able to walk, might have trouble talking, might need someone to turn the pages if they’re reading. Not at all unaware. I think it was my parents’ specific intention that I would observe this.

In Panamanian culture, those born at the top have turned everything into a zero-sum competition – not anything merit-based, mind you – and those who play the game do whatever they can do to disqualify potential competitors.

Embed that sort of attitude into an aggregate culture, and you still have philanthropic souls, like sighted people who will do things to help the blind. But in general the blind are treated as broken, incompetent, suitable to hang out on a street corner with a tin cup, but not really employable. We don’t have guide dogs for the blind here. Someone like Stevie Wonder, or like his co-leader of Detroit’s blind community, Judge Paul Teranes, would have difficulty growing up, getting an education, thriving and existing here. Lucky for Detroit that it had a quietly militant civil rights movement for the blind led by men like these, and carried on by others to this day. Without that, there would have been no braille next to the elevator buttons when I went upstairs in the Wayne County Building for a Circuit Court hearing in which Teranes denied my motion to suppress evidence against my client.

Panama suffers huge aggregate productivity losses due to the social limitations imposed on people with disabilities. Panama’s National Police lose a big public relations opportunity and fall short of fully “serving and protecting” by not dedicating some of the canine resource they have to also training guide dogs, in addition to the guards, trackers and the drugs and explosives sniffers.

The notion that the disabled are feeble minded also exists in US society, but by law and the mainstream of public thinking that attitude is on a spectrum from rejected to scorned.

But what has really grown in US society is the culture of bullying.

Remember those disgusting 80s books like “Winning Through Intimidation”? Did you ever follow a school board campaign in which the “conservative” – not with respect to conserving their community’s human resources – opposed anti-bullying policies on the grounds of free speech and religion? See, they WANTED for gay kids to be beaten up, abused at every turn, driven out, driven to suicide. Basic MAGA stuff these days.

And if you get rich from hawking quack miracle cures, or helping Russian gangsters launder assets stolen from the former Soviet Union, or defrauding a children’s charity, or in televised self-promotion passed off as “reality” Then you can use that money, or by borrowing against fake rumors that you have that money, to defame, belittle and degrade any and all opponents. You will have this cheering section, like playground bullies also tend to attract. There’s this perverse need to be on the side of the “winner.”

Setting up a hangman’s noose in front of the US Capitol, hitting the gas and driving through a crowd of protesters, introducing a high-powered firearm into every social transaction just by carrying it around, beating up queers, berating people who think differently in online discussions, ghosting someone whom the boss dislikes but can’t find an economical way to outright fire. Yadda yadda yadda – bullying is a big thing in US culture these days, and any weakness that might create an advantage will do.

Like if you are a billionaire business news magnate, failed former big city mayor and no-traction presidential candidate, and an opponent running way ahead of you has a heart attack on the campaign trail, you can pour millions into television ads taunting him about it. Like if you support the dregs of television doctors who is beset by ethical issues while running a carpetbagger campaign for the US Senate and the other guy has has a stroke that’s left him with a bit of aphasia – difficulty speaking – you can berate the opposition about that.

That sort of stuff is nothing new. Did the worst pre-human hominids who were living in trees do that? Probably. In any case, by the time that the oral traditions later written down as the Bible were being passed on, decent people warned against that stuff:

Thou shalt not curse the deaf, nor put a stumblingblock before the blind…

Leviticus 19:14

…but these days there are the sorts of “Christians” who think that it’s cool to do this stuff, especially to those who have different political or religious ideas. Kid stuff bullying, practiced by adults in front of television cameras often enough these days.

Let’s not let people get off on insanity here. It’s not mental illness. The bullying that goes on in American society, including but not only in the political sphere, is a MORAL illness.

In THIS case…

Well, what IS aphasia? First, it comes in several varieties and is usually caused by either strokes or head injuries. It sometimes comes with other maladies or disabilities contracted in the same event or events. It can be mild, or severe. People can make full recoveries but some never do. There are new drugs now in use that will often limit the damage to brain cells – including the extent and severity of aphasia — if given soon enough after a stroke or a head injury.

So, is aphasia a disqualification for a job? ANY JOB? That would be extreme. We may, however, not want an air traffic controller — whose quick, precise and clear speech can be a life-or-death matter for pilots, crews and passengers — with aphasia issues.

Public officials? Elected officials? Well, what kind? And this question gets down to the common errors of the politician as celebrity mentality, and of confusion about the constitutional roles of different jobs.

One class of appointed public officials need the clearest of speech and the quickest of wits. An admiral commanding a fleet that’s under attack at sea not only need to make it possible for subordinates to understand her. She needs to make it impossible for those under her command to misunderstand her. The same would apply to a police chief in charge at the siege of an active shooter who has taken hostages.

An executive mayor, a governor or a president of a country? Those are EXECUTIVE positions that require administrative abilities and temperaments that are different from those required in a legislative job, but akin in ways to military or law enforcement commands. Judicial temperament? If US politics go at all well from a Democrat’s perspective in the midterm elections, there is a high probability that Americans will be talking about what that is and should be. It’s a different package of abilities from those of a legislator or executive.


To be a senator? You need a mind sharp enough to discern the issues at stake. You need the stamina to read through a lot of material, or to listen to it being read to you, and to understand it. You may, perhaps with the help of aides, want to improve on a bill by proposing an amendment. You will need, in one way or another, from tell your colleagues your concerns. When things come up to be decided, you will need to vote yea or nay.

It’s a grueling job for someone who is dedicated to doing the work to be excellent at it. It’s an easy enough job for someone who’s willing to go with the flow and just vote the way his or her caucus does. Most senators fall somewhere in between.

In that chamber the wisdom of a senior citizen who has seen it all is more valuable that the youthful fire that has recently propelled someone to the House of Representatives.

John Fetterman?

The man understands what’s going on, what needs to be said, which stupid or just downright wrong things not to say. A mayor of Braddock and Lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania he has a public record, so in broad terms we know where he has been at on past controversies and how he is likely to see new things as they come up.

Yes, in the debate with Mehmet Oz, John Fetterman mumbled and slurred and missed some words. We hear all of the variations on the bullying guffaws. But he didn’t say that local public officials should be in on a woman’s choice about whether to have an abortion, as Oz said in the most memorable of his gaffes that night.

Some five months after having a stroke and still recovering, Lt. Gov. Fetterman held his own in the debate, with no major gaffes. He was put to the test and he passed.

What’s Dr. Oz’s excuse?

Former US Representative Gabby Giffords is a southpaw these days. In addition to her aphasia, she’s largely paralyzed on her right side. She was invited to Fenway Park earlier this year as part of its Gun Violence Awareness Day. She would know. In 2011, while serving in her third term in Congress and meeting constituents in Tuscon, a demented conspiracy theorist opened fire on her. Six people standing around her were killed but, shot through the head with a bullet from a 9MM automatic pistol, Giffords survived. Left paralyzed and unable to speak, she went through a long recovery process of relearning to speak and walk, but eventually found that her injuries made it too difficult for her to handle the work of being the sort of congresswoman she thought she should be. Her husband, former Space Shuttle commander Mark Kelly, later ran for and was elected to the US Senate. (He is running for re-election this year.) Meanwhile Gabby, notwithstanding her disabilities is of sound mind and is one of the leading US advocates of stronger gun control laws. A fellow survivor, a sister in the struggle.

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