As the projected winner for North Carolina’s 11th district was announced last night, my stomach wrenched. Madison Cawthorn, a 25-year-old male from North Carolina without any work history, education, or qualifications won his race over Moe Davis, and will now be the youngest person to ever serve in congress.
Cawthorn had one obvious advantage over his competitor — he was a pretty disabled boy with a great smile who’s “overcome” so much by being in a wheelchair. And isn’t that wonderful?
You may think this line is unfair but hear me out. I’m a paraplegic female who’s fought her entire adulthood against the view of what disability is expected to be. I, like Cawthorn, am disabled due to a car accident. I connect with other disability activists every day about how we’re treated by society and media — how the disabled community is portrayed and how to fight against stereotypes. We almost all feel the same way about Cawthorn’s position as the new Republican darling — fearful and disgusted.
What Cawthorn has done since his injury six years ago is lean into stereotypes saying disabled people need to overcome their disability. Cawthorn himself has said these things. When he met Donald Trump earlier in 2020, Cawthorn noted how kind Trump was to him, a person in a wheelchair.
As if the wheelchair makes it alright for anyone to treat him as less of a person.
His Pony Trick
You will remember Cawthorn’s stunt at the Republican National Conference this summer when he stood up from his wheelchair with the help of two aids. He said that if he can stand for the flag, we all should.
That trick — which he did at campaign stops and before he ran for office — fooled millions of non-disabled Americans. Non-disabled America that night lauded Cawthorn for being an inspiration, and proving that a wheelchair couldn’t stop him from his dreams. This centers around the white non-disabled view of disability as a weakness or something that needs to be fixed.
Ableism, “whatever that is”
A direct quote from an Instagram exchange Cawthorn recently had with a disability activist, he claimed to not believe in or know what ableism is.
For those reading this unfamiliar with the term, ableism, “is discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities,” and it’s sadly something that disabled people experience multiple times a day.
However, in Cawthorn denying that ableism exists or claiming to not know what it is, is dangerous to the community because it emboldens non-disabled Americans who agree with him. Cawthorn is looked to as someone who’s knowledgeable about the disability community and our struggles. Part of that is not necessarily his fault, but the fault of America having so few disabled people in power, that someone like him is just assumed to.
What Cawthorn wants is the praise that comes from being an inspiring disabled person, but none of the responsibility that should come along with it. He thinks that simply being wheelchair-bound, getting out of bed in the morning and saying he believes in the Constitution gives him the entitlement to be in Congress.
Cawthorn refuses to acknowledge that he is now seen as a representative of the disabled community while claiming our community is not discriminated against. However, he can’t avoid this truth, just as the disabled community can’t pretend that he’s not one of us (although trust me, we wish he wasn’t the disabled politician that was elected).
Before he enters Congress in January, maybe he should take time to read essential books on ableism and the disability rights movement. Ableism is real. Disabled people have less access to education, experience more poverty and have higher unemployment rates. These are all direct results of systemic ableism in American society.
His Disability Shields Him
Another stereotype associated with disabled people is that we’re angels, That we wouldn’t hurt anyone and are incapable of being a threat.
This is a dream for someone like Cawthorn, as he again leans into a stereotype to get away with his grift. While Cawthorn tries to act as though he is a good conservative Christian, who was dealt a harsh hand in life, the reality is different.
Cawthorn is regularly found to have racist tendencies. He traveled to a Nazi historical location as though it was a jubilant pilgrimage. More recently, he created a site that spoke out against white men for working for powerful black men.
Beyond his racism, Cawthorn was notorious at school for allegedly attempting to force himself on young female classmates. Disabled people can be sexual predators too — in fact, men like Cawthorn use their disability to appear less predatory.
What if Cawthorn Wasn’t Disabled?
He wouldn’t have been elected last night. He wouldn’t have won his primary. Let’s take away Cawthorn’s wheelchair for a moment.
He’s 25 and someone that young should have an impressive accompanying resume. However, Cawthorn’s resume is non-existent. He claimed to be a real estate investor, but journalist investigations found out his real estate company isn’t exactly legit. Cawthorn completed less than one year of college, so a good education wouldn’t be a factor in his nomination.
These glaring inadequacies might be overlooked if Cawthorn had served the public in any way, but he hasn’t. All of the above factors does not make Cawthorn a politician but makes him a symbol. A symbol of what America still believes disability should look like.
Millions of disabled people (mainly women and BIPOC) who do have solid qualifications fight to get jobs. We have to work twice as hard to get half as far in non-disabled society because we’re looked at as lazy, incapable and to be pitied.
North Carolina fell hard for Cawthorn’s grift and centuries of unconscious ableism (yes, pity is part of ableism) lead them to vote for him. The outcome and falling for Cawthorn is not completely the fault of voters, but the damage to disabled people is very real. It’s not too late for constituents of NC-11, and Cawthorn’s fellow Republicans in Congress to denounce everything he embodies.