Jul 1 2011

Getting Arrested Without Getting Attention

Media ignore disability rights protest on Capitol Hill

Non-newsworthy events at the Cannon House Office Building

While it’s true elite media show no principled interest in citizen activism, you’d think some things would garner a word or two. Like 300 people, 200 or so in wheelchairs, occupying the rotunda of the Cannon House Office Building in Washington, D.C., to protest Republican budget plans for Medicaid.

Dozens of protesters, organized by the disability rights group ADAPT, were arrested and carted off by Capitol police on May 2; the next day, another 300 gathered outside the Longworth House Office Building, many getting inside to Rep. Paul Ryan’s second floor office, where 10 were arrested—all to the profound disinterest of the country’s “top” media.

As activists explained to those listening (Politico, 5/2/11; American Independent, 5/2/11; Hill, 5/3/11), the disability community isn’t just concerned about the roughly 35 percent funding cuts to Medicaid in the GOP’s budget proposal, though those would be devastating; it’s also the plan to convert states’ federal shares to block grants, capping the federal contribution while allowing cash-strapped states to limit enrollment, restrict eligibility and reduce services.

For Ryan, that’s called giving states “maximum flexibility to tailor their Medicaid programs to the specific needs of their populations,” but ADAPT organizer Mike Ervin told the Hill: “That’s like saying Jim Crow laws give states more flexibility to decide who gets to drink at their water fountains. Flexibility is basically a code word for abandonment.”

Medicaid cuts could be life-altering for people like him, says Ervin, who rely on it “for the assistance we get every day to live in our communities” rather than institutions. Despite the Supreme Court’s Olmstead ruling that people with disabilities have a right to live in the “most integrated setting” safely possible, they already face what Ervin (CounterSpin, 5/13/11) calls an “institutional bias” in existing law, which requires states to pay for recipients’ care “if it’s in a nursing home…. But if you want to be in your home, you cannot say, I want that same Medicaid money to pay for me to be in my home.” Ervin says the policy is expensive as well as misguided, and ADAPT has legislation in Congress aimed at fixing it.

If people with disabilities—one community that anyone can join at any moment—and their advocates can’t see their concerns reflected in a story so vital to their lives, one may ask, when would they? Yet a look at several months of broadcast TV coverage on the federal budget finds no substantive reporting on the particular impact of budget issues on this community, unless you count the February 18 segment in which CBS Evening News, (2/18/11) encouraged outrage over the fraudulent misuse of disability funds in the time-tested “gotcha” style: “Does she look disabled?… This Pennsylvania woman collected disability checks even as surveillance video showed her working as a mail clerk….”

What surface-penetrating coverage there is seems to come as frontline reporting when specific programs are under threat. Proposed state level cuts to Florida’s mental health and Medicaid spending sparked stories like one in the Orlando Sentinel (4/26/11) that complicated political palaver about “belt-tightening” with the realities of people like Jeannie Forthuber, whose son Jonathan has a developmental disability and a seizure disorder.

Reducing her options for care could mean taking him back to unspecialized doctors who, for one thing, “can’t even weigh him. I have to stand up and hold him and we guess his weight,” she told the paper. “Then you’re guessing about medication doses …and what size equipment he might need.”

The urgency and humanity of such stories is bulldozed under by the daily drum of corporate budget reporting, in which the framing questions for an “adult conversation” include, in Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson’s formulation (5/7/11): “How much, if at all, should social spending be allowed to squeeze national defense?” In that far more prevalent presentation, people with disabilities, when they do appear, are grouped with the poor and the elderly as items on the “cost” side of some rhetorical ledger.