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.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was America’s most famous disabled politician. At age 39, FDR contracted polio, which left him paralyzed from the waist down.
Most Americans in Roosevelt’s time were aware that he had contracted polio and that it had affected his ability to walk. Few, however, knew the extent of his paralysis — that it had left him, in the parlance of the day, a “cripple.”
Roosevelt willingly used a wheelchair in private. But his public events were carefully choreographed so that the media, and sometimes the public, would not see him arriving or departing from an event in a wheelchair.
Roosevelt was rarely photographed in a wheelchair. Editor & Publisher once reported that if Secret Service agents saw a photographer taking a picture of the president in a compromising position — say, while transitioning from his crutches to a chair — they would grab the camera and destroy the film. “By what right they do this I don’t know,” the reporter wrote. “But I have never seen the right questioned.”
He never regained the ability to walk, but he did find a way to seem to walk. In public, he often appeared using leg braces and on crutches, and he could walk — or, more accurately, shuffle — a few feet at a time with the support of an aide.
In his recent book The Man He Became, James Tobin writes that FDR’s shuffling was not an attempt to conceal his disability but rather “a deliberate show of strength, a silent, symbolic assertion that he could bear the burden of the presidency.”
These efforts were understandable in an era when to be a “cripple” was synonymous with being inferior, pitiful, and unequal to the task of holding high office.
Times have changed, of course. And Greg Abbott seems more easygoing and matter-of-fact about his disability. In public, Abbott’s wheelchair, and thus his disability, is both everpresent and easily overlooked. His Facebook and campaign-website photos show him talking at podiums, meeting with constituents, and posing with his family — all in a wheelchair. The cover of an issue of Texas Monthly presents Abbott in a wheelchair clutching a shotgun.
Abbott uses humor when he talks about his disability. “My slogan is in this campaign that Texans need to roll with Greg, roll towards victory,” he once told Glenn Beck. He often quips, “Some politicians talk about having a steel spine. I actually have one.”
Not bad. But neither joke compares to the one James Langevin once used. The six-term Rhode Island representative, and Congress’s only quadriplegic, once ran for office on the slogan, “I’ll stand up for you.”
Abbott doesn’t seem to be preoccupied with his disability. For Abbott, disability is neither an obstacle to be overcome nor a mark of heroism. Instead, it is a natural part — a small part — of what defines him as a candidate for political office.
As Lex Frieden, a friend of Abbott’s who uses a wheelchair, told the New York Times, “The fact that he doesn’t mention it every time he speaks is evidence that his wheelchair to him is the same as eyeglasses to a person who wears eyeglasses.”
On March 4, Abbott won the Republican primary for governor. He will take on Davis in November’s general election. If he prevails, he will become arguably the second most prominent American with a disability ever to be elected to political office. And from there, who knows?
As Frieden told the Times, “The exciting thing to me is that someday Greg Abbott will run for president and he’ll be able to do so without hiding his wheelchair.”
— Daniel Allott is a writer in Washington, D.C.