The Audacity of Madison Cawthorn
his grandstanding was not an inspiration — it was an insult to the disabled movement
If you tuned into the full Republican National Convention (RNC) last night and saw Madison Cawthorn speak, you also saw him end his speech by standing from his wheelchair. He stood, as he said, for the flag.
If you didn’t see it live, you most certainly read about it this morning. News outlets from liberal to conservative lead with inspirational headlines that this paralyzed man (miraculously) stood up.
The GOP is calling it inspirational — Charlie Kirk said that if Madison Cawthorn can stand for the flag, everyone should. The New York Post said, “he’s a rising star.” They’re saying what a model he is for others. He said, “I will stand. Will you?”
And while the GOP and non-disableds across the country fawned over this clear political stunt, the disabled community wept.
We wept not because he stood — that part is wonderful. I’m glad for him that he has the ability to stand.
We wept and screamed into our pillows because Madison Cawthorn played into the hands of societal ableism last night. His standing was one that was meant to inspire non-disabled America.
And while it worked, it hurt the disabled community he so wrongly claims to represent. Standing does not make him “amazing” nor should it — him being paralyzed is totally OK. It’s not something he needs to overcome nor does he need to make a show of his disability to appeal to shallow-minded Americans who don’t understand why this act of inspiration porn is harmful.
And the media ate it up. They played right into his hands because there aren’t any disabled people on staff at the networks. News networks couldn’t and wouldn’t dispute the act of pain being committed on disabled people in that moment.
He could’ve used his platform for good. Madison Cawthorn could have instead talked about how the disabled community still faces constant discrimination and poverty in this country. He could’ve called for the enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
He didn’t do any of that. And it’s because Cawthorn knows that outside of him playing up his disability, he hasn’t earned a place in Congress. The GOP is calling him a rising star because he’s an attractive white man who’s paralyzed and they can tokenize him.
Instead of Cawthorn discussing his accomplishments (which he has few of), he talked about overcoming adversity. However, overcoming adversity for disabled people comes because of the countless societal barriers in place. Yes, he has overcome the heartbreak of being in a terrible accident. I’ve been there and I understand that struggle of learning your life will be different forever and needing to go through physical and mental recovery. Cawthorn didn’t frame it in this way at all.
PBS’s Yamiche Alcindor rightfully called out his political stunt and was attacked relentlessly by the right-wing. They said it wasn’t her place to do so.
And they may be right, because Yamiche is not a disabled American and because she seemed to miss part of the point. Yamiche didn’t acknowledge how last night’s act would impact the disabled community, but she knows political stunt when she sees one.
But I’m a disabled person, also paralyzed from a terrible accident and I’m here to tell you that what Madison Cawthorn did last night was disgusting. It broke my heart.
I’ve spent my life having to listen to able-bodied people come up to me and tell me they’ll pray that I can walk again. Others will ask if I’m sure I’ll never be able to walk, that maybe I should try “harder.” Because ableism in this country is so rooted, that simply being in the wheelchair is not enough.
No, it’s something that must be fixed. That must be changed. And yet, I’m fine with my wheelchair. I won’t walk again and that’s fine, because it doesn’t make me any less of a human.
However, what Cawthorn did last night was perpetuate the notion that a disabled person must try to not be disabled. I don’t know if he understands that what he did was harmful to our community — my guess is not. Because Cawthorn grew up in the same ableist society that the rest of us did, and probably has a negative view of his own disability. He may think he needs to do this to be accepted and praised by non-disabled America.
Madison Cawthorn is wrong on every level. And he’s a grifter, this is just a new type of grift.
I could get into all the reasons that Madison Cawthorn is not fit to serve in Congress. From parading at a Holocaust site, to allegedly harassing women, they’re all awful. But his stunt last night proves that he has no place in Congress. He exploited himself and undermined the very community he claims to be a part of.
It broke my heart last night to see the hateful comments from non-disabled people saying that the outraged disability community was just jealous of Cawthorn. We are not jealous. We are angry and frustrated that in that moment, he did more harm to our community than he will ever understand. All the while Cawthorn will only surround himself with non-disabled people that fawn over him instead of connecting with others in the disability community to learn.
So please, before you join in on the praise of Madison Cawthorn, talk to a disabled person. Read about ableism and inspiration porn and why disabled people get frustrated when we’re supposed to embrace these acts.
Understand why what he did last night is not something to be praised, but something to be frowned upon. It made me cry for how much work there still is to be done to change the way disability in this country is viewed.