Commentary Health Systems

How Media Coverage of Health-Care Protests by People With Disabilities Missed the Point

Robyn Powell

While I am thrilled that the protest received so much attention, I am worried that some overlooked its purpose: to draw attention to the very real and devastating consequences people with disabilities will experience if the new health-care bill passes.

Unless you have been living under a rock, you likely know that last week the GOP Senate released its new health-care bill, the Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017. You are probably also aware that a sizable group of people with disabilities protested this bill last week outside the office of Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

As a woman with a disability, I was so happy to see the extensive local, national, and international coverage of the protests by the media. But while I am thrilled that the protest received so much attention, I am worried that some overlooked its purpose: to draw attention to the very real and devastating consequences people with disabilities will experience if the new health-care bill passes.

Last week’s protest was organized by ADAPT, a national grassroots group of disability rights activists. ADAPT has an impressive history of engaging in nonviolent direct action, including civil disobedience, to assure the rights of people with disabilities. ADAPT is nonpartisan and has demonstrated against both Republicans and Democrats, as well as Congress as a whole, for more than 30 years.

ADAPT originated in the 1980s to advocate for accessible public transportation. Today, the group focuses its efforts on fighting for home- and community-based services that enable people with disabilities to live in their communities rather than in nursing homes or institutions. While it received far less media attention, ADAPT protested in May 2017 in front of the White House and at the U.S. Capitol building, demanding passage of the Disability Integration Act—which would make home- and community-based services a civil right—and opposing cuts to Medicaid. In fact, 83 protesters with disabilities were arrested at the White House last month.

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ADAPT’s “die in” last week at McConnell’s office was specifically in response to the GOP’s proposed cuts to Medicaid, which will likely reduce access to health-care services as well as home- and community-based services for millions of people in the United States. Notably, this protest fell on the 18th anniversary of the Olmstead v. L.C. decision, where the Supreme Court held that people with disabilities have a right to live in the community and that unnecessary segregation, such as in nursing homes and institutions, violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Coverage of last week’s protest spread like wildfire across mainstream media. Headlines such as “Police drag away protesters in wheelchairs from Mitch McConnell’s office” and “Disability advocates arrested during health care protest at McConnell’s office” rapidly appeared on the front pages of hundreds of websites and newspapers, along with photos of people who use wheelchairs being arrested. Cable news stations also covered the protest.

Shortly after this news began to break, however, I began seeing messages on Twitter questioning whether people with disabilities had the mental capacity to choose to protest. Some people remarked that Democrats forced people with disabilities to protest. Notably, one Fox News contributor tweeted, “Protestors [sic] in Capitol also appear to be very fast readers,” suggesting that they had not read the bill and did not know why they were protesting. Others questioned whether the protesters actually had disabilities.

This questioning of the protesters’ competence is offensive. As leaders of ADAPT explained to ABC News, this action was planned well in advance. The protesters were at the Capitol because of their fears and outrage concerning the proposed draconian cuts to Medicaid: The House health-care bill included such drastic changes, and ADAPT correctly guessed the Senate bill would be similar.

For most of the protesters, this was not their first direct action. The fact that it occurred on the same day the GOP Senate health-care bill was released was a wonderful, but unplanned, coincidence—although the group knew the bill was being released last week, no one (including most Republicans) knew exactly when. No one had forced them to be there. And yes, people who were in wheelchairs at the protest are indeed wheelchair users, not paid actors.

To be fair, conservatives were not the only ones to get it wrong when it came to the protest. In response to the protest, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) tweeted, “We can’t believe this needs to be said, but it’s not okay to drag people out of wheelchairs when they’re protesting legislation.” While that is true—no one should be put in danger or harmed when being arrested—the tweet suggests that people with disabilities should not be arrested. My concern is the ACLU’s apparent focus on people with disabilities specifically, rather than all people.

This also goes to what I see as the bigger issue with the coverage: The mainstream media and many progressives focused on the optics of the arrests rather than the issue, often sensationalizing the protests. As ADAPT has explained, their members were well aware they would likely be arrested. Most have been arrested before for similar direct action. Civil disobedience is a vital part of ADAPT’s activism and is the cornerstone of their success. Just like nondisabled people risk being arrested when engaging in civil disobedience, people with disabilities knowingly and willingly take the same chances. For them, the risk is worth it.

Again, my concerns do not mean I believe the police should be physically or forcibly harming anyone. In fact, I am concerned about how some protesters were arrested (or even why they were arrested). It appears that some people were removed from their wheelchairs, and that is unacceptable.

Nonetheless, I do wonder why there was such outrage over these particular arrests of protesters, when mistreatment by the police occurs often. People with disabilities, especially those of color, often experience unnecessary force and police brutality. Why wasn’t there similar mainstream media coverage and public outrage when Charleena Lyles, a mother of color whose family reported she had mental health issues, was shot and killed by police earlier this month? No one, regardless of race, ethnicity, disability, gender, sexual orientation, or religion, should experience police brutality. Stories about disabled people of color being killed by police often go untold, and that should cause similar, if not greater, outrage.

ADAPT’s protest happened because people with disabilities are facing significant and imminent risk from proposed cuts to Medicaid. Indeed, just yesterday, the Congressional Budget Office issued its score, showing that the Senate’s proposed health-care bill would cut Medicaid spending by more than $700 billion over the next ten years. One in five adults in the United States has a disability, and 30 percent of adults with disabilities receive Medicaid.

I am one such adult. I was born with arthrogryposis, a physical disability that affects my muscles and joints. I use a power wheelchair and have no use of my legs and limited use of my arms. I have received Medicaid most of my life. Medicaid pays for my durable medical equipment, such as my power wheelchair that needs to be replaced every five years and costs $30,000. Medicaid also pays for my personal care assistant (PCA) services, which allow me to live in the community. Throughout the day, PCAs assist me with my personal care needs. If I did not have PCA services, I could not live independently. I also could not work and pay taxes.

I am fortunate because I live in Massachusetts, a state that allows adults with disabilities to work and pay a premium for Medicaid. Without Medicaid, I could not afford my wheelchair or PCA services, two things I need in order to live. Medicaid is not optional for me.

If funding for Medicaid is drastically cut, as proposed in the GOP Senate health-care bill, people with disabilities will undoubtedly lose necessary services, including those that allow us to live in the community. Providing home- and community-based services is not only the right thing to do, it’s the most cost-effective way to support people with disabilities. A 2012 study by the National Council on Disability found that it is considerably less expensive to enable people with disabilities to live in their communities. This should be of particular interest to the GOP, which is seeking to lower costs.

Again, I am thrilled that last week’s protest received so much public attention. Frankly, it is long overdue. However, now more than ever, we must focus on the real issue: People with disabilities, low-income children and adults, and the elderly are facing a life-or-death situation. That is the story that must be told, and that is what deserves public outrage.

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