OPINION: Madison Cawthorn should be doing more to help the disabled community

Michael Friant, Contributing Writer

The average disabled person has to overcome a plethora of barriers and inequalities to survive let alone thrive in this world. These include transportation, navigating the government’s bureaucracy, getting the proper aid, and last but not least challenging people’s perceptions in hopes to be seen as normal. However, individuals like North Carolina Republican Rep. Madison Cawthorn, who is paralyzed, are privileged enough to have the resources and connections to live a normal life. So, as a public official with his platform, he should be advocating for his fellow disabled citizens in North Carolina rather than magnifying white nationalist rhetoric which ultimately excludes him due to his disability.

During the Holocaust, people with disabilities and other minorities across the ideological and political spectrum were executed in the gas chambers. They were executed because Adolf Hitler viewed them as inferior, incapable of being a contributing member of society, and unworthy to live. Worst yet, some of them were equated to animals and had horrendous medical experiments done on them.  

So, for Cawthorn to visit Hitler’s vacation house, as a wheelchair user, and dedicate a whole, now deleted, Instagram post to praising the visit shows the pure ignorance of him when it comes to how his own disability would have been perceived those days.

Unfortunately, this perception of people with disabilities has not diminished all these years later. Most people with disabilities struggle on a daily basis to navigate a world that is not structured to suit them. For example, a UNCW student has to overcome social perceptions from their fellow students and professors just to feel some kind of normalcy and acceptance.

Cawthorn should be using his platform to amplify that people with disabilities are in fact normal. He could do this in a variety of ways. First, he could talk about his own experiences as a person with a wheelchair. Undoubtedly, he has had these experiences and they have played a huge role in his life. Second, he could start weekly conversations with other people with disabilities in North Carolina which would not only amplify the disability community but also enlighten him as a representative of the people.

North Carolina Rep. Madison Cawthorn and Indiana Rep. Jim Banks chat before former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo introduces the Maximum Pressure Act against Iran on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, April 21, 2021. (Yuri Gripas/TNS)

More importantly, he should be using his political power to enact and change laws that affect people with disabilities. As a House representative, he is fortunate enough to earn $174,000 a year, while many of his fellow North Carolinians with disabilities are barely given enough from Supplemental Security Income (SSI) to survive month to month. On top of this, Supplemental Security tells them if they have more than $2,000 in their account, they risk having their benefits cut off unless they transfer it to what is called an ABLE accountCawthorn should use his political influence to get these oppressive laws thrown out so people with disabilities can have the ability to save money without jumping through unnecessary loopholes.

One immediate way he could show support for these changes is to back The Supplemental Security Income Restoration Act of 2021. Among the many changes, this legislation would both raise the monthly allotment of $794 to above the federal poverty line and it would increase the amount of money one could have in their account from $2,000 to $10,000. The raising of the monthly allotment raise would provide people with disabilities both the adequate funds to take care of themselves, the ability to choose where they live instead of their financial situation determining where they live and to thrive in all other aspects of life. The increased saving allotment will enable people with disabilities to have money in case of an emergency without having to utilize the ABLE account which comes with its own accessibility problems.  

In addition, Cawthorn should introduce legislation that empowers people with disabilities to apply for funds to hire their own support staff rather than having to go through bureaucratic channels This will not only eliminate the needless waiting and limited contracts but also give them an advantage. Recent graduates who have spent four years getting a degree should not have to battle the government in terms of being able to get the help they need.

Of all people, Cawthorn ought to know the benefits of having friends as staff. While he does have a specialized car, he would not be able to travel the country without people who can drive him around. Going beyond this, Cawthorn probably has many more little things that he receives help for. Having his friends who have been around him for years and know how he likes things done undoubtedly saves him a lot of stress and anxiety. This frees him up to be able to focus on other things that he enjoys and cares deeply about.

Moreover, Madison’s connections with former Republican Rep. Mark Meadows undoubtedly gave his family an advantage in navigating and in many ways bypassing the bureaucracy of applying and actually receiving the critical care that he needed after his accident. Furthermore, Cawthorn’s prior relationship with Meadows undoubtedly propelled him to success within politics. After all, Meadows brought Madison on as a staffer even though he dropped out of college after one semester.

Rep. Madison Cawthorn holds a copy of the bill while former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo introduces the Maximum Pressure Act against Iran on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, April 21, 2021. (Yuri Gripas/TNS)

In contrast, there are numerous North Carolinians with disabilities whose stories are similar to mine. As a student at UNCW going into my junior year, I have experienced many of these inequalities of transportation firsthand. For the first two years of my college experience, I had to ride the bus every day for two hours. It took me a whole six months to be able to get on SSI. Though I had a support system, it should not have taken six months for me to be approved for SSI. Then, once I got my GED in April 2016, I tried to get help finding a job through the local vocational rehabilitation program. Between the system’s bureaucracy and the program agencies, I basically spent a year and a half navigating the system. Within this time, I only got one interview at the Food Lion on Carolina Beach Road. While I did not end up getting the job, it would have been very inconvenient due to the transportation system in Wilmington.

In addition to navigating these systems, I am a long-distance runner. While I have been very successful within the local running community, there is only so far I am able to go due to the simple fact that I have to rely on the generosity of my fellow runners to provide support. Also, transportation would be a huge challenge. So, with just under two years to go in college, I wonder if I will be able to use my communication degree and continue reaching for the sky or will be drowning in government bureaucracy.

However, if Cawthorn would stop spreading white national rhetoric about masks which ultimately saves lives of people with disabilities especially if they are immunocompromised, and start fighting for people with disabilities, perhaps I and other North Carolinians with disabilities can be as successful as he is in our own right. We live in a country where we claim that we all have equal opportunity in terms of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but are we such a country? Right now, it doesn’t feel that way.