In January, when an article in the Dallas Morning News challenged key details of the life story of Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis, Davis responded with a revealing metaphor.
Accusing Texas attorney general Greg Abbott of generating the story, Davis said that Abbott couldn’t possibly understand her life — a life of “hard work and perseverance” — because he “hasn’t walked a day in my shoes.”
Davis’s retort was an allusion not only to her personal story of struggle and success but also to her filibuster of a pro-life bill in the Texas legislature last June, during which she famously donned pink tennis shoes. The eleven-hour talkathon catapulted Davis to national fame and a shot at the governorship of the second-largest state.
But Davis’s remark also seemed cruel. Abbott has used a wheelchair since he was 26 years old, when an 80-foot oak tree fell on him while he was running. As a paraplegic, Abbott won’t be walking in anyone’s shoes, and that fact made Davis’s complaints about her own life seem rather whiny and self-serving.
Conservative pundits assailed Davis for her insensitivity. Some even accused her of intentionally taking a shot at Abbott’s disability. But it seems more likely that Davis simply momentarily forgot that Abbott has a disability that prevents him from walking.
And that’s not surprising. Not because Abbott conceals his disability, but rather because he seamlessly incorporates it into his public life. In fact, Abbott’s political career has been notable for the lack of attention paid to his disability.
Politicians with disabilities face extra challenges when campaigning. Former senator Bob Dole suffered an injury in World War II that left his right arm withered. For decades Dole rarely talked about his disability in public.
Dole became more open about the extent of his injuries when he became the Republican nominee for president in 1996. He did so in part as a way to explain why he couldn’t shake hands, pick up babies, easily sign autographs or do many of the other things presidential candidates are expected to do.
Wheelchairs can present a special dilemma on the campaign trail. Max Cleland lost both legs and an arm in the Vietnam War and went on to spend three decades in politics, eventually rising to the U.S. Senate. In his book Heart of a Patriot, Cleland talked about why he almost always wore artificial legs while campaigning for the Georgia state senate in the 1970s.
“I knew I was the embodiment of [the public’s] deepest fears, of the worst that might befall their own children in the big, wide world,” he wrote. During one fundraiser, “I stood on my artificial legs for five hours straight. . . . It was the longest I had stood up to that point. It was important to me that everyone at the rally sees me as an able-bodied man standing on his own.”
Cleland also discussed the anxiety he felt at the prospect of using a wheelchair in public:
. . . the legs had been a psychic crutch for me. When I wore them, I could imagine that I was almost whole. I believed my legs elicited less pity than the wheelchair. Campaigning without them for the first time was very scary. I felt absolutely naked. Going up to a potential voter in a grocery store in my wheelchair, holding out my left hand, and saying, “I’m Max Cleland and I’m running for the state senate,” took every bit of courage I could muster. I couldn’t have felt more vulnerable if I hadn’t been wearing a stitch of clothing. I had no confidence whatsoever, and was shaking as I reached out to grab that first hand.
Like Cleland, Illinois congresswoman Tammy Duckworth lost her legs and an arm while serving the country in wartime. She was disabled in 2004 when a rocket-propelled grenade hit the helicopter she was flying in Iraq.
Duckworth speaks often and openly about her disability. Her heroism was featured prominently in her campaign for Congress in 2012. So prominently, in fact, that Duckworth’s opponent, incumbent Republican Joe Walsh, said that her military service, and by extension her war injuries, were “darn near all of what Tammy Duckworth talks about.”
For that comment, Walsh was predictably pilloried in the media and by Duckworth and other Democrats and many veterans, who demanded that he apologize.