Donald Trump’s disability is a terrible one, one that I would not wish on anyone: There is little that is more disabling than a mean spirit.
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The elementary school bullies used to yell that. I hated the plastic tortoise-shell glasses for their book-thickness, their weight, but most of all, I hated them for the taunts. There were other kids who wore glasses in our school, so I could not have been the only one who was taunted, but my glasses truly were thicker than anyone else’s. By high school I took up the affectation of not needing them, because, as a near-sighted person, I could see light and dark and shapes and so I could negotiate my way from classroom to classroom. I stopped the affectation one day when I did not recognize my own sister among the shapes and colors of our high school halls.
Anyone who is near-sighted knows what the world looks like to them; anyone who does not, does not. I have friends who are color-blind; I do not know what the world looks like in their eyes, but I do not need to know what the world looks like for them, I only need to know that it looks different. (One friend is such a talented describer of things that I regretted not being color-blind while he detailed his experience of life with that condition.)
My legs are slowly becoming less and less useful; a neurologist several years ago used the word “severe” to describe the condition that the nerves inside my spinal cord have twisted themselves into. (He asked me to tell him the date I was in a car accident, because spinal muscular atrophy makes my spine look like something terrible happened to break my back in several places. I have not yet been in any accident, not yet broken even a bone in this body. SMA kills the long nerves inside the spinal cord and when they cease functioning, the muscles that they control stop functioning because they are no longer being told what to do. It usually strikes the leg muscles first.) My body is imprisoning itself.
Anyone whose mobility is impaired—be it from aging, which is not a simple process, or from a disease like SMA—knows what the experience feels like. Many of us have a day, a specific moment, in which an invisible line was crossed (one last nerve switched off) and walking was not normal or possible from that moment on, and that moment is one I do not wish on anyone, even people I dislike. The word I would use is “terror.” Those who do not know what the experience is like, they do not know. You do not need to know what our experience of life is like, just that it is different.
I walk with a cane, sometimes a walking stick. From step to step, my legs do not take an entirely predictable path. Thus, I take short steps with my legs kind of wide-apart; I walk like Gumby. It probably looks funny; I have privately nicknamed myself “Crazy Legs,” but I do not use it in any mood other than frustration.
Walking down the street of my hometown, I have watched oncoming fellow pedestrians jump off our shared sidewalk to avoid me and then hop back on after passing me. I do not take up more space than the average, non-cane-using, person does. I walk more slowly than many, but not so slowly that one can not pass me on our shared sidewalk. Not so slowly that a simple, “Excuse me,” would not cover the entire moment. I do not know what they think when they do it. It is almost akin to yelling “Four eyes” at me. It is an (I hope) unconscious pointing out of something that I already know is different: I walk funny. I suppose I should be grateful they do not trip me; because that would really be rude, would really be like those elementary school taunters.
I do not want or need more from the world because I have something disabling, and this is simply because every individual has something that challenges them. The only difference between you and me is that I need to use tools, which you can see, to help me with the challenge. Eyeglasses when I was a kid (my eyes were repaired in recent years), a modified method of walking and a cane now. I do not even like writing what I have so far written, because if you are still reading this, I have forced you into my experience rather than invited you.
I am not a Republican, so I do not have the opportunity when next year’s New York State primary day comes around to not vote for Donald Trump. If he was a Democrat, I would happily not vote for him that day. I almost wish he was on my side so that I could not vote for him. But this is not a piece about politics. It is about empathy. I have read that as far as empathy for individuals whom he knows personally is concerned, Mr. Trump is an all-star human being.
But if you say or write something he disagrees with, he uses his position as a wealthy white man of a certain age with a healthy human body as if it is something that he won in battle, something he earned through hard work. His position as a person who does not have spinal muscular atrophy is not the product of hard work or clean living; my position as a person who does have it is not the product of laziness or bad choices: we both won a lottery. His scratch-off ticket did not have “You’re disabled!” under the silver paint, and mine did.
By now you have seen the video of Mr. Trump displaying his irritation with something a reporter said in an article by appearing to imitate the reporter, who has a condition called arthrogryposis. The reporter, born with the condition, has arms that are pulled up to his body, like a bird’s.
Mr. Trump decided to imitate the reporter, Serge Kovaleski, by pulling his arms up to his chest and flailing his hands about. Even Mr. Trump knows that what he was doing was hugely impolite, was not merely politically incorrect but simply rude, as he has repeatedly released excuse-Tweets about what he did. All of them compound the absence of human empathy: “Serge Kovaleski must think a lot of himself if he thinks I remember him from decades ago—if I ever met him at all, which I doubt I did.” And, “He should stop using his disability to grandstand and get back to reporting for a newspaper that is rapidly going down the tubes.” And, “I have no idea who this reporter, Serge Kovalski [sic], is, what he looks like or his level of intelligence. Despite having one of the all-time great memories, I certainly do not remember him. I don’t know if he is [Houston Texans defensive end] JJ Watt or Muhammad Ali in his prime—or somebody of less athletic ability.”
Mr. Kovaleski has not been “grandstanding.” His employer came to his defense. Mr. Trump excuse-Tweeted that his physical imitation was of a person with faulty memory. Not remembering things does not bring one’s wrists up to one’s chest; remembering that a reporter who said something you do not like has wrists pulled up to his chest brings one’s wrists up to one’s chest.
If Mr. Trump wants to imitate me, a reporter unknown to him, he will need to work on walking like Gumby.
Even the captions under photos of Mr. Kovaleski in articles about this story that are sympathetic to him help me make a further point: “Donald Trump has come under fire again, this time for mocking New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski, who suffers from a chronic condition.” That is from the Associated Press. “Suffers.” That word is not much nicer than mockery; it is a person who jumps off a sidewalk to avoid me and views themselves as more polite than someone who would push me off and yell “Cane-user!” or “Four eyes!” at me. We all suffer. Life is full of suffering. Disabled people make their way through life with a different suffering, sometimes something harsher, sometimes something simply different and not harsher. (I wear glasses, but I am not sightless; I have difficulty walking, but I walk. Life could be harder.)
My life could be harder. I thank my girlfriend, Jen, for many things every day, and today I realized I had something else to thank her for, so I did. “Sweetness, I know that my legs are in better shape today than they would be if I was single, because we are together. Because with you, I am always walking towards something.”
So yes, Donald Trump’s disability is a terrible one, one that I would not wish on anyone: There is little that is more disabling than a mean spirit.
The WordPress Daily Prompt for November 27 asks, “Who was the first person you encountered today? Write about him or her.”
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