Why the Deaf Community Fears President Trump
A man who has mocked people with disabilities and expressed a desire to dismantle some of the protections that exist for people like me is about to become the president.
Donald Trump after a meeting at the US Capitol last week. Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images
"'All men are created equal.' Well, it's not true."
That's President-elect Donald Trump, a clip unearthed for a PBS documentary that shone a light on, among other things, Trump's apparent belief that some people are born smart, born to be successful, born with what he has called "the winning gene."
"The [Trump] family subscribes to a racehorse theory of human development," Trump biographer Michael D'Antonio told the team behind the Frontline documentary The Choice. "They believe that there are superior people, and that if you put together the genes of a superior woman and a superior man, you get a superior offspring."
This belief, that certain genes make better people, is an echo of eugenics, a racist, pseudoscientific philosophy that aims to "improve" the human race by breeding out supposedly bad characteristics. When it became popular in the late 19th century, eugenics became the driving force behind a number of atrocities against many minority groups, including the Deaf community. The Nazis were the most infamous eugenicists, but there were many other believers. Alexander Graham Bell used eugenics to propose a ban on sign language and deaf intramarriage in his 1884 paper, " Upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race." Deaf people were institutionalized and some forcibly sterilized for years afterward; deaf education was upended and students' hands were literally tied down to prevent them from signing. Bell's ideas about the superiority of oralism over bilingual schooling remain embedded in our education and legislative systems, despite having been scientifically debunked.
Today, many groups are worried about how a Trump presidency will affect them. But though the Deaf and disabled communities were not the focus of much campaign rhetoric, it seems clear that Trump has contempt for people like me. Trump has publicly mocked a journalist with a joint condition, reportedly called Deaf actress and Celebrity Apprentice contestant Marlee Matlin "retarded," and perpetuated the false notion that vaccines cause autism. There have been multiple lawsuits against his properties for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Writing for the LA Times in October, disability advocate David Perry called Trump the "most ableist presidential nominee in modern American political history."
Policy-wise, the future for deaf people is as murky as it is for everyone else, as Trump constantly introduces and walks back proposals varying in levels of moral reprehensibility, legality, and feasibility. According to his most recent statements, his plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and " re-establish high-risk pools" (as his website puts it) would result in loss of healthcare coverage for many deaf and disabled people whose conditions can be classified as preexisting. Deaf and disabled people who depend on Medicaid for insurance or medical devices not covered by traditional health insurance are also fearful, as Trump's rollback of ACA's Medicaid expansion could affect the approximately 7 million people who have gained coverage under it.
Deaf and disabled people have also voiced concern about a potentially weaker ADA under Trump. The ADA is enforced by the Department of Justice's civil rights division, and given Trump's properties' alleged ADA violations and the traditional conservative stance against government spending and oversight, cuts seem likely, leaving us at the whim of private companies' bottom lines.
The ADA bars employers from discriminatory hiring practices and protects our rights to "reasonable accommodations" like closed captions and sign language interpreters at work and school. For the wider disability community, the ADA ensures things like wheelchair ramps, elevators, and handicapped parking and bathrooms. An ADA weakened by lack of oversight and money could well mean continued police brutality against people with disabilities. In the case of deaf people specifically, law enforcement already has a troubling record of arresting and detaining people without providing interpreters, or even a pen and paper, to explain the reason for arrest or Mirandize them. Unarmed deaf people, whom police misinterpret to be aggressive or using gang signs, have been killed with impunity— Daniel Harris, Edward P. Miller, and John T. Williams are among the more famous cases.
Questions of discrimination and accessibility if the ADA becomes less of priority in a Trump DOJ also extend to the education sector. Schools for the Deaf, branches of their state public school systems, are likely to be endangered by budget cuts and funding shifts from the public sector to charter and voucher systems, which Trump endorses. Deaf schools are often among the first to be cut from struggling districts, with deaf students instead sent to mainstream schools where they are unable to communicate directly with their teachers and peers. Further, Deaf schools traditionally serve as hubs for Deaf culture, providing independent living and job training for post-grads, offering (often free) American Sign Language (ASL) classes to interested locals, leading research in linguistics and special education, and hosting social and cultural events—all resources left defunct upon the closure of a Deaf school.
And where fears of budget cuts and eugenics intersect, some worry about the threat of mandatory cochlear implantation, via which deaf students could theoretically be integrated into hearing schools at a lower cost. Though it sounds extreme, it's not any larger a violation of one's individual medical choices than Trump and Pence's assault on women's reproductive rights. (The idea that the decision not to implant one's child is evidence of neglect has already surfaced in family court, though so far the argument hasn't been successful.)
Finally, as hate speech against racial and religious minorities spikes across the country, Deaf and disabled people have also experienced post-election hate speech in the name of the president-elect. In one example, Lena Van Manen, a CODA (child of Deaf adults who is a native sign language user) and a coordinator at the Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Education in Indiana, wrote on Facebook about being confronted while facetiming with a Deaf friend in Starbucks. Used to people staring while she signed, she ignored the glare from a man across the store until he got in her face and screamed, "This is white America now. Take your retarded self and go somewhere else."
We can't know for sure what Trump will do, but if he does what he says he wants to do, it will hurt us. His words already have.