Trump doesn't get what makes the Paralympics great

The scene at the White House on Friday should have been one of celebration and positivity -- a time to honor Olympic ...

Posted: May 1, 2018 10:21 AM
Updated: May 1, 2018 10:21 AM

The scene at the White House on Friday should have been one of celebration and positivity -- a time to honor Olympic and Paralympic athletes. Instead, it quickly became one of derogatory rhetoric and confusion.

"What happened with the Paralympics was so incredible and so inspiring to me," President Donald Trump said during the ceremony, surrounded by members of the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. "And I watched -- it's a little tough to watch too much, but I watched as much as I could."

Trump's words reflects an ever-growing troubling pattern of treatment toward the disability community. People with disabilities are often dismissed, devalued and discriminated against, even though progress has been made over the years to change society's perception.

And, in 2018, perhaps there's no greater offender than the President himself.

Naturally, it didn't take long for the backlash to the President's remarks to begin, with everyone from actress Minnie Driver, star of ABC's "Speechless," to athletes themselves voicing their disgust and disappointment.

The Paralympics responded as well the next day, tweeting: "Record numbers around the world are not finding @Paralympics tough to watch. Billions of viewers now take in the Paralympics in hundreds of countries around the world. We hope the US President continues to watch and be inspired by the Paralympics."

Still some, like The Washington Post's Aaron Blake, were quick to dismiss Trump's statement as "innocuous" and merely referring to time constraints placed on the President.

Honestly, that explanation seems far more unlikely, especially when you consider Trump's fondness for watching television and his past behavior toward people with disabilities. It's an explanation that's too simple and too neat.

To be sure, the Paralympic Games were considerably shorter than the Olympics (94 hours and 176 hours, respectively), and, yes, Trump is arguably a very busy man. But surely he could skip a round on the golf course to support the fine athletes of Team USA. And, if his time constraints really did prevent him from watching, then wouldn't those same constraints apply to the Olympics, making them "tough to watch" as well? Why single out the Paralympic team?

The far more likely explanation is that, once again, Trump's words highlight his deep-seated ableism -- that pervasive prejudice against people with disabilities.

Trump's thoughtless words are something we should all be concerned with, especially when they're yet another example of his damaging treatment of the disability community. And it's particularly problematic considering that, too often, the disability community is overlooked and undervalued.

Of course, Trump has a long and storied history of derogatory words and insulting, demeaning gestures when it comes to the topic of disabilities. Not even one month after his January 2017 inauguration, the Disability section on the White House website was removed. Although it's common practice for each new administration to revamp the site, this section has yet to be added back and White House officials haven't commented on its absence.

And it's even harder to forget his crude mocking of New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski during a speech in 2015 -- an incident for which Trump refused to apologize despite a public outcry and video footage.

Which is why to go from calling the athletes "incredible" to downright insulting them in the very next sentence is nothing short of dangerous. By saying it's tough to watch, Trump is invoking that archaic stereotype that people with disabilities shouldn't be seen -- that they make people too uncomfortable to be out in public.

As Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, tweeted on Sunday, "It's not 'tough to watch' incredible @Paralympics athletes compete and showcase their talents, it's inspiring. These brave athletes overcome a lot to get to the finish line."

Indeed, Trump missed an important opportunity here to support people with disabilities. Now more than ever, we need positive representations when it comes to disabilities, and the Paralympic team is such a powerful force in the movement.

Trump could have thanked the team for their wonderful contribution to the Olympic spirit, but he didn't. He could have lifted them up instead of putting them down, but he didn't. And that subtext behind his words spoke volumes.

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