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Did Trump Call Sessions 'Retarded'?

The real harm against disabled Americans isn't the president's ableist rhetoric; it's his ableist policies.
President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, pictured here on March 29th, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, pictured here on March 29th, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

Among the many stupefying incidents reported in Bob Woodward's new book, Fear: Trump in the White House, President Donald Trump has called Attorney General Jeff Sessions "mentally retarded" while mocking his Southern accent. It's the kind of revelation that would have derailed other presidencies for days, if not weeks. In the current period, though, we've become so inured to the president's conduct, and so distracted by more significant threats to vulnerable communities, that it can be hard for the disability rights community to know how to respond to such incidents. The R-word is among the worst slurs used to objectify people with intellectual disabilities. It's anathema to people like me, the father of a boy with Down syndrome. But we already knew that, when the going gets tough, Trump starts calling people names. Given the various outrages perpetrated by his administration, does Trump's use of bigoted language even still matter?

Trump, of course, responded to the revelation by immediately denying that he had ever called anyone the R-word, let alone his attorney general, but these protestations are not credible. Multiple sources have corroborated Trump's frequent use of ableist insults against Sessions. As reported in the Daily Beast, Trump has also been recorded using the R-word on the radio on at least two occasions. During the campaign, he was accused by multiple staffers of having used the epithet against deaf actress Marlee Matlin when she appeared on Celebrity Apprentice. He was widely criticized during the campaign for miming spasmodic motions while insulting reporter Serge Kovaleski, who is physically disabled. (Trump responded to that accusation by claiming he frequently used mock-spastic movements to insult people and that he hadn't been specifically targeting Kovaleski's disabilities.) Trump's attacks against African-American public figures include denigrating Congresswoman Maxine Waters as an "extraordinarily low IQ person." Suffice it to say there's evidence to support the idea that Trump frequently uses words and gestures based on demeaning people with intellectual and other disabilities.

That said, bad words are the least of the problems for disabled Americans, their families, and their communities, coming out of Washington under Trump. People with disabilities who engage in policy and politics remain angry and worried about many aims of the Trump administration, as they have been since he began his campaign. The most serious threats come not from Trump's personal character flaws and instincts to belittle, but rather from core issues of Republican ideology. The GOP has attempted to defund Medicaid, an effort stopped largely by the efforts of disabled activists. Republicans then repealed the individual mandate in their 2017 tax bill, potentially spurring rising health-care costs for the people who most depend on access to medicine. Under Secretary Betsy DeVos, the Department of Education rolled back protections for students in special education and has supported increasingly permissive standards for special education vouchers. Alas, when parents take disabled children to private schools, they surrender many of their child's hard-won civil rights under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. While it's true that 12 Democratic representatives voted in support of H.R. 620, a bill that guts core commercial protections of the Americans With Disabilities Act, a whopping 213 Republicans backed the measure. Sessions, the very target of Trump's ableist language in Woodward's book, rolled back key protections for disabled workers last year. While some of these moves came from Trump's cabinet and others from the GOP-controlled Congress, all are fully in line with decades of Republican policy positions.

More recently, of course, Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh, a man who was at the center of elite GOP strategy circles for years, long before the current president became a political force. As we've reported at Pacific Standard, major disability rights organizations from around the country have come out in opposition to Kavanaugh's appointment, citing his general aversion to federal oversight as well as specifically troubling cases. Most powerfully, Liz Weintraub, a policy expert for the Association of University Centers on Disabilities and a woman who identifies as having an intellectual disability, testified against Kavanaugh's appointment before the Senate. Weintraub highlighted the decision in Doe ex rel. Tarlow v. District of Columbia, a case in which Kavanaugh ruled that people with intellectual disabilities do not need to be granted the opportunity to consent to surgery if the state has ever ruled them mentally incompetent. As Weintraub told the Senate Judiciary Committee: "Every adult deserves to be treated like a grown-up and have the right to be asked what they wanted, especially when it's about their own body. If they need support to understand and make an informed choice, then give it to them."

The disability community isn't the only marginalized group trying to figure out how to navigate significant material threats alongside the rhetorical harm from Trump's high-profile insults. Steven Thrasher, a journalist and professor at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, took on similar issues in the New York Times when he addressed the allegations that someone has a tape of the president using the "n-word." Thrasher writes:

Black people and others who take racism seriously—who know it is a force that shapes our society, rather than simply an insulting label that must be cautiously applied—don't need to hear a tape to know where he stands. And I am not sure such a tape would make much difference to anyone else, even those who cling to the laughable myth that the use of a slur is the gold standard when it comes to identifying racism.

Though ableism functions differently than racism in American society, the argument about the "R-word" might follow a similar path. The threats are so many and so great that anyone who needs to hear a "bad word" to recognize that this administration is failing disabled Americans is simply not paying attention.

Yet a lot of people don't pay attention. Even after the Kovaleski incident, after the GOP promises to repeal Medicaid and other core social programs, after the attacks on the Americans With Disabilities Act, and even after Hillary Clinton produced the most robust set of disability-related policies in presidential electoral history, our best numbers indicate that about 46 percent of disabled voters and 48 percent of their family members supported Trump in the 2016 election. It may be that calling attention to Trump's ableist insults can provide a gateway for disability advocates to invite potential allies into the broader fight for disability justice. The fight can't end with being angry at the "R-word," but it sure can begin there.