4 The Language of Disability: From Discourse to Policy

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Noah Hanssen, Howard Community College

Mentored by: Matthew Van Hoose, Ph.D.


There are numerous frameworks with which to understand disability, and these frameworks in turn shape politics and policy. For this reason, it is important to understand how these discursive frameworks enter into the political realm and with what consequences. This paper begins by defining three of the most prevalent frameworks for understanding disability – the social, medical, and cultural models – and considering their different implications for policy. It then examines the discourses underpinning speeches by two prominent political figures for disability, the late Christopher Reeve and Congressman Madison Cawthorn. Reeve’s ultimate reliance on the medical model, and its implications for policy, become clearer when examined alongside critiques by activists who subscribe to the social model. Madison Cawthorn’s speech introduces a newer form of hyper-medicalization, a perspective branching off the medical model but that de-politicizes disability to focus on appeals to the able bodied. Taken together, the two speeches demonstrate the importance of critically examining the implications of the medical model’s prevalence.


Four years ago, I stumbled upon a short online book called Two Arms and a Head, published as a written work on a website of the same name after the author, who used the online pen name Clayton Atreus, committed suicide. The book [1] detailed Atreus’s life and struggle after being in a motorcycle accident that resulted in his receiving a spinal cord injury (SCI). The final chapter acts as his suicide note. The overarching thesis that Atreus presents through his personal account of suffering is that life with disability, specifically his as a paraplegic, is not worth living – that disability is an inherently painful experience. While some individuals with disabilities might find a way to live happily, Atreus argues, their conditions should not be treated as better or more dignified than they are. “Paraplegia and life itself,” he concludes, “are not compatible.” [1]

This work was unfortunately extremely cathartic for me to read. Having myself experienced a similar accident and injury at the age of seven, my relationship to my body and my disability were not healthy. While it is impossible to confirm Clayton Atreus’s true identity, his writing on his experiences matched so well with my own thoughts and feelings that I am convinced of this work’s authenticity. Atreus’s thoughts on disability also took him to the kind of dark place that motivated my own decision to seek therapy. Like Atreus, my self-perception at that time was inherently ableist, which is to say that I viewed disability as a fundamentally worse way to experience life. Atreus and I both viewed the limitations of the chairs we were in as something that inevitably ruined rather than changed the way we lived – a view that ultimately dehumanizes people with disabilities.

Atreus’s point of view carries multiple implications, most of which he addresses directly. Given the monstrousness that he associates with disability, he believes that there must be a push for legalizing assisted suicide for the disabled in the absence of efficient cures. Providing a permanent way out of the pain inflicted on people like Atreus or myself is a necessary step toward building a more just society. Atreus addresses different sets of disability activists, but primarily opposes himself to the organization Not Dead Yet which advocates against the legalization and normalization of assisted suicide for the disabled and expanded its advocacy to a broader range of equal rights for the disabled. Atreus is ruthless in his attacks on this “organization of crazies,” which he sees as promoting the injustice of keeping severely disabled people alive. Although I did not appreciate it fully at the time, Atreus provides a signal example of how one’s own intimate, bodily relationship with disability becomes inextricably tied to much broader questions of politics and policy. That connection constitutes the focus of this paper. Specifically, I explore how discourses about disability become linked to positions and recommendations in the public domain regarding the treatment of people with disabilities.  I examine this connection through a close analysis of speeches by two prominent disabled public figures within the domain of U.S. national politics: Christopher Reeve and Madison Cawthorn.

Despite the fact that disabled people are one of the largest U.S. minority groups, accounting for approximately 20% [2] of the population according to the Center For Disease Control (CDC), they are markedly underrepresented among policymakers. Public officeholders with visible disabilities are rare; according to the National Council on Independent Living, there are about 13 current federal elected officials [3] with disabilities. The late Christopher Reeve and North Carolina’s District 11 Congressman Madison Cawthorn are two of the most prominent public figures with spinal cord injuries (SCIs) who have engaged in the political sphere. Although Madison Cawthorn does not identify as disabled [4], he and Reeve both sit at an intersection of living as a prominent disabled person and the production of discourse that can influence policy. Reeve was given a platform to speak at the Democratic National Convention in 1996 [5], and Cawthorn at the Republican Party National Convention in 2020 [6]. The infrequency of wheelchair-bound public figures, especially in the political sphere, makes these two speeches important in setting the dialogue around disability both broadly and specifically in politics. Therefore, examining the mindset, model of disability, and end goals of their speeches is important for understanding how disability discourse works and why it matters.

While disability has been understood and theorized in a variety of ways, discourses have often been framed in terms of solving a “problem” with disabled people. There is in fact significant disagreement, however, around whether there is a problem at all, and if so, what it is and how to address it. Generally, all frameworks see an issue of suffering for disabled people that they aim to alleviate. The central dichotomy in these perspectives, however, is around whether the problem of undue suffering resides in disability itself, or in societies’ failures to accommodate it. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, in her work “Building a World with Disability in it,” describes this dichotomy as one between eugenic world building and inclusive world building [7]. These two opposing ways of addressing the problem of disability have weighty political implications. Eugenic world building is based more squarely around the medicalization of disability, which views those with disabilities through the medical lens of sickness. Inclusive world building, by contrast, sees disabled people as a form of minority group or identity or, in some cases, rejects entirely the distinction between those who are disabled versus those who are not. These opposing views and the broader discourses that undergird them merit closer examination before turning to the speeches of Reeve and Cawthorn.

Eugenic World Building

The eugenic world is one that seeks to remove disability from it [7], much like Clayton Atreus did and I used to. Disability, in this view, removes agency while causing suffering and direct harm. Accordingly, the world should seek to remove this affliction and the suffering it causes. Clayton Atreus advocated for allowing people like him more legal and comfortable ways of ending their lives, because he understood disabled people as those suffering harm and needed help rather than as examples of heroism and inspiration [1]. Many of his points align with the views of bioethicist Peter Singer, known primarily for his work on behalf of animal rights and articulating a theory of effective altruism. In his book, Practical Ethics, Singer describes numerous complicated moral quandaries using his brand of utilitarian thinking. Singer is concerned with preventing suffering of what he defines as “Persons.” He describes a “Person” as different from a human based on a subset of attributes that generally gives a Person moral consideration [8]. These traits, which are not necessarily present in every human being, are that the Person is capable of perceiving the self through time and is capable of rational and autonomous thinking. Under this definition, controversially, Singer argues that people with some severe disabilities would therefore not have personhood, and that because “defective infants lack these characteristics,” then “killing them…cannot be equated with killing normal human beings, or any other self-conscious beings.” [8] As an extension of this argument, Singer has also advocated that in situations where the severely disabled do not actively benefit others, they ought to be euthanized. Singer, like Atreus, builds a “better world” where disability is less frequent and those who would inevitably suffer from disability are removed from it for their own good and for the convenience of the people around them. Unsurprisingly, these ideas have led to significant controversy and dispute between Singer and disability activists [8]-[10]. Before presenting Garland-Thomson’s alternative approach to world building for disability, it is important to discuss the underlying discourses that shape eugenic prescriptions.

Models of Disability

There are multiple “models” that have been used to understand and discuss disability, three of which carry particular significance for this analysis: the medical model, the social model, and the cultural model. Each uniquely perceives disability, though given that these were concepts developed over time through discourse, they often act as a response to previously developed models [7], [11], [12]. The medical model emerged as a refutation of earlier religious models, which often understand disability as a signifier of divine punishment or blessing. The medical model, by contrast, views disability as an impairment to normal functioning that can be and should be researched, treated, or cured. While ostensibly well intentioned, the medical model frequently underpins visions of eugenic world building.

The social model, in contrast to the medical model, deconstructs disability and the numerous conditions that are ascribed to it, understanding the numerous ways in which the impairment of one’s “normal functioning” can be a socially constructed concept [7], [11], [12]. If a person in need of a wheelchair cannot “function normally,” for example, perhaps that has less to do with that person’s condition and more to do with barriers to that person’s functioning erected by the external social environment. There are branches of the social model that looks at accessibility as well as other economic or interpersonal ways that a disabled person might be socially inhibited from “normal functioning,” rather than examining their hardships as a strictly medical impairment.

The cultural model, as a more recently developed idea in conversation with the social model, broadens the analytical scope further [11]. Whereas the social model is concerned with the full integration of disabled people into society and examines questions of stigma and accessibility, the cultural model is concerned more broadly with the way a culture creates a relationship between the stigmatized, othered disability compared to “normality.” [11] Anne Waldshmidt references [12] Dan Goodley’s term of “Dis/ability,” where the slash is added to signify the cultural model’s focus less on disability itself [13], but rather on the relationship between disability and “ability,” or normal functioning. The oftentimes dysfunctional ways in which cultures define normality itself, as well as any deviations from it, are more central concerns of the cultural model. Noting that everyone at some point will deviate and shift in their physical and mental faculties, the cultural model is concerned with how a culture responds to that fact. These cultural responses are oftentimes inflected with fear, as those with disabilities can be outcast or pitied. There are notable exceptions though: some cultures view certain disabilities as gifts or as opportunities to gain unique perspectives, wisdom, or creativity. Just as discourses built on the medical model lend themselves frequently to eugenic world building, the social and cultural models point more clearly in the direction of what Garland-Thomson characterizes as a more inclusive world.

Inclusive World Building

The inclusive world as described by Garland-Thomson is predicated on understanding disability in the context of the cultural and social models [7]. Disability is something that affects people and their ability to function, but social definitions of disability are constructed and vague, and are made even more elusive by currently available accommodations. Almost every person either is or will be impaired in some way during their lifetime; how that impairment is perceived is not necessarily based upon a clear or transparent metric of functionality. A paraplegic with the needed accommodations will often be seen as more disabled or dysfunctional than someone with untreated depression, even if the contrary might be true. A vast number of people wear glasses and would be intensely impaired without them, but very rarely are those who are near-sighted or far-sighted treated in a way associated with a disabled person. Disability is a natural and constant part of the human condition, and there are numerous disabilities that are accommodated for in a way that renders that disability invisible. The process of accommodating and understanding disability therefore deserves more emphasis, and while the medical model that informs the eugenic world sees sickness in need of curing, the social and cultural models that inform the inclusive world see discrimination in need of confronting. Disabled people with the right accommodations already contribute greatly to every domain of social life, but even if they could not, Garland-Thomson argues, they are people with the same dignity as anyone else [7]. Accordingly, advocacy for disabled people should focus on expanding accommodations, not eliminating the numbers of disabled people through cures and eugenics.

The Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, which gave people with disabilities protection against discrimination by federal law and established new accessibility standards for public and some private entities, was developed based around the principles of an inclusive world over a eugenic one. It was fought for by disabled activists whose motivation was to access the world around them with their disabilities, not to cure or eliminate the disabilities themselves [14]-[16]. Garland-Thomson illustrates how these more inclusive approaches to world building conflict with eugenic ones by relating the story of Dr. Alberto Costa. Costa, whose daughter has Down syndrome, has been researching methods that could increase the quality of life for those with Down syndrome; but he has constantly struggled to secure funding, as his research is often overshadowed by genetic research into preventing children with Down syndrome from being born in the first place [7].

These two conflicting visions for how disabilities should be handled by society, and the underlying disability discourses that inform them, provide an apparatus for analyzing the way people speak about disability. Christopher Reeve and Madison Cawthorn both, to different degrees, have engaged in rhetoric that reinforces the eugenic framework in their speeches, though the policy implications of their interventions differ given the manner and extent to which they reproduce the medical model of disability.

Christopher Reeve

Christopher Reeve was originally most known for his acting career, playing Superman in 1978 and onward. Reeve became one of the most famous celebrities with a spinal cord injury (SCI) after a horse-riding accident rendered him a quadriplegic. He became more known after his accident for his activism surrounding disability broadly and more specifically for the SCI community. As a young, handsome celebrity, Reeve is often credited with growing awareness around SCI, and he used his platform to normalize spinal cord injured people and to advocate for disability policies he believed in. He had two policy advocacy aims: increase quality of life for people with disability and secure funding toward curing SCI, most notably through stem cell research. The latter was far more the focus of his speech during the 1996 Democratic National Convention (DNC), during which Bill Clinton received the party’s nomination.

Reeve’s speech begins with an acknowledgement of the ADA, then in its sixth year as federal law, then states that disabled people have value and must be treated with dignity. Reeve then turns to describe the ways in which disabled people suffer harm and must be taken care of [5].

Now, during my rehabilitation, I met a young man named Gregory Patterson. He was innocently driving through Newark, New Jersey, and a stray bullet, from a gang shooting, went through a car window, right into his neck and severed his spinal cord. Five years ago, he might have died. Today, because of research, he’s alive. But merely being alive — merely being alive is not enough. We have a moral and an economic responsibility to ease his suffering and to prevent others from experiencing such pain. [5]

So if we can conquer outer space, we should be able to conquer inner space, too. And that’s the frontier of the brain, the central nervous system, and all the afflictions of the body that destroy so many lives, and rob our country of so much potential. [5]

Reeve’s use of the medical rather than the social lens is notable in passages such as this one. He talks about treatment, cures and the research that must be done to help the disabled, listing specific tragedies individuals have undergone that have left them disabled. In a speech that runs around 20 minutes, the vast focus is on a bipartisan plea for funding research and cures, as witnessed by the following passage as Reeve nears his conclusion.

Research can provide hope for people who suffer from Alzheimer’s. We’ve already discovered the gene that causes it. Research can provide hope for people like Muhammad Ali and the Reverend Billy Graham, who suffer from Parkinson’s. Research can provide hope for the millions of Americans like Kirk Douglas, who suffer from stroke. We can ease the pain of people like Barbara Jordan, who battled multiple sclerosis. We can find treatments for people like Elizabeth Glaser, whom we lost to AIDS. And now that we know that nerves in the spinal cord can regenerate, we are on the way to getting millions of people around the world, millions of people around the world like me, up and out of these wheelchairs.[5]

Reeve’s speech has been controversial among disability activists, as studied by Elizabeth Scherman, who analyzed both its content and reception [17]. As Scherman explains, Reeve’s speech which was lauded by The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Tribune, and most others in the able-bodied community, while largely panned by disability activists. These activists’ criticisms make clear how this speech and its associated call to policy action are based on medical models of disability [17].

This discourse of disability exerts a strong force today and is known as the ‘medical’ model. It interacts with a prior, but still active charity discourse of disability (Fulcher). There is a deep cultural history of disability being seen as something that needs to be dealt with by charity. In late modernity, charity is very big business indeed, and celebrities play an important role in representing the good works bestowed on people with disabilities by rich donors. Those managing celebrities often suggest that the star finds a charity to gain favorable publicity, a routine for which people with disabilities are generally the pathetic but handy extras. Charity dinners and events do not just reinforce the tragedy of disability, but they also leave unexamined the structural nature of disability, and its associated disadvantage. [18]

By steeping his speech in tragedy and in descriptions of pitiable circumstances, as demonstrated above, [17], Reeve seeks to issue a call to action to identify the cure to injuries like his. He alludes to the United States as a large extended family and describes the disabled as a member that must be cared for – a formulation which was also criticized as paternalistic in many parts of the disabled community. The “cure narrative” [18] that Reeve constructs, in short, mobilizes the medical model into a call for eugenic world building that emphasizes the need for a cure to disability amidst their suffering.

Reeve does acknowledge the ADA and its necessity and grounds his speech in a call for equality for the disabled [5]. Given that implementation of the ADA was still far from complete at the time of his speech, however – as witnessed, for one, by the fact that the very space Reeve was speaking in was still not very accessible [17] – his lack of attention to policies for improving accessibility is notable [18]. To disability activists past and present, the ADA was a step forward, but more can and must be done, and Reeve in this speech does not focus on that. He additionally did not focus on healthcare reform, on social spending, nor was his speech about pushing forward for disability rights.

The primary mention of accommodations in Reeve’s speech, in fact, actually works to undermine accommodations as a policy priority. Building on his metaphor of the family, Reeve observes that “about a quarter million Americans have a spinal cord injury, and our government spends about $8.7 billion a year just maintaining these members of our family. But we only spend $40 million a year on research that would actually improve the quality of their lives and get them off public assistance or even cure them.” [5] Here again, Reeve deploys the medical model in arguing that quality of life improvements should take the form of cures and treatments rather than efforts to make the world more accessible to those with disabilities.

As witnessed by the wide notoriety of Reeve’s speech [17], [18], Reeve played a significant role in bringing more national attention to the issues of disability. While recognizing that this attention has translated to positive impact in some areas, it is equally important to discern the medical discursive model that ultimately informed Reeve’s speech and to acknowledge the problems associated with the kind of world that this discourse is often mobilized to build.

While Reeve’s DNC speech worked to promote specific policies surrounding the disabled primarily related to medical funding, the intent of Madison Cawthorn’s RNC speech 24 years later is in many ways less clear. Cawthorn’s speech is much shorter and focuses on the accident that led to his disability as well as on drawing contrasts between Republican and Democrat positions on a range of issues.  The complication is in the vagueness he uses when making the statements and attacks he does. Cawthorn does not attack any specific policy, position or moment the Democrats had been a part of; rather he uses slogans, phrases and talking points that were a large part of the Trump campaign’s, and his own, strategy. He claims that “while the radical left wants to dismantle, defund and destroy, the Republicans under President Trump’s leadership want to rebuild, restore and renew,” and that liberals have abandoned their commitment to free speech [6]. He also notably implores the country to listen to young people, whom he encourages to participate in government as he does. He references Democrats wanting to “usher in the digital dark ages,” having normalized “emotion-based voting and a radicalized identity politics that rejects Martin Luther King’s dream.” He claims that the Republican party is the party of freedom and of free speech for all and implores his fellow Conservatives to “define what we support and win the argument in areas like healthcare and the environment.” He ends his speech by alluding to standing for the flag rather than kneeling: using leg braces and a walker, steadied by two men, he stands up and says, “be a radical for our Republic, for which I stand, under God, with liberty and justice for all.”

Madison Cawthorn

Cawthorn introduces himself and his injury and describes in broad strokes the ways that his perspective has been altered by his accident, that “my accident has given me new eyes to see and new ears to hear.” [6] He then uses a broad set of talking points and positions surrounding the Trump candidacy and Republican campaigning. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests around the country form an important part of the speech’s context. Although Cawthorn never mentions BLM explicitly, his allusions to free speech, and to the Democrats wishing to dismantle, defund, or destroy central facets of U.S. social life were all central to the Republican response to these protests. Cawthorn’s invocation of Martin Luther King, Jr. in calling for peace and equality and the rejection of “identity politics,” while arguably creative, does signal his awareness of  the need to re-frame the civil rights protests and debates that form part of his context. In implicitly attaching BLM, however, Cawthorn seems not to be aware of, or purposefully ignores the history of intersectionality with radical civil rights protests and disability advocacy. The 504 Fair Housing protests of 1977, the largest and most notable part of this country wide movement being the San Francisco Federal Building Sit-In, are widely recognized as the forerunner of  the fight for the ADA [19]-[22] and were successful thanks to support and supplies provided by a coalition of radical Black, gay and impoverished rights organizations, like the Butterfly Brigade, Black Panthers, Delancey Street, and Chicano Mission Rebels [19]. In the light of this past, Cawthorn’s jabs at BLM also work to obscure the radical past of disability.

The unique aspect of Madison Cawthorn’s speech is that while it does not address policy initiatives related to disability, he does ground his claims to legitimacy and his invocations of sympathy and pity in his experience of disability, which he cites as his reason for running, as it has led to his being unseen and unheard.

Before my accident I was 6’3″, I stood out in a crowd, but as I wheeled through the stadium, I felt invisible. At 20, I thought about giving up. However, I knew I could still make a difference and my accident has given me new eyes to see and new ears to hear. God protected my mind and my ability to speak, so I say to people who feel forgotten, ignored and invisible, I see you. I hear you. At 20, I made a choice. In 2020 our country has a choice. We can give up on the American ideal or we can work together to make our imperfect union more perfect. I choose to fight for the future, to seize the high ground and retake the shining city on a hill. [6]

Cawthorn also expresses his gratitude to God for having “protected my mind and my ability to speak” [6] – a claim suggests a hierarchy of possible disabilities and their severity. Most interesting, however, is how he ends his speech alluding to BLM with the line “you can kneel before God but stand for our flag” before himself standing up with the use of his braces and walker. Here Cawthorn juxtaposes his difficulty in standing for the flag with those able-bodied athletes who would kneel during the national anthem as a gesture of protest in alignment with the Black Lives Matter movement. Outside of this appeal, Cawthorn eschews any discussion of disability politics or policies, going so far as to claim that “I am not disabled, I am just a person who lives in a wheelchair” on Instagram [4].

In analyzing Cawthorn’s appeals to his personal struggle with disability alongside his lack of engagement with broader policies related to disabled people, it is important to note that while disabilities are often invoked to portray tragedy and to elicit pity, they are also used frequently to inspire. “Inspiration porn” is a term often associated with the various ways disadvantaged people can be dehumanized and used as narrative props to inspire others [23]. The medical model of disability is notably present in inspiration porn’s premise that disabled people’s very existence and persistence in living is “inspirational” due to the uniquely difficult or painful nature of their conditions. Anyone who can maintain or thrive in these lesser bodies, this logic claims, becomes significantly more admirable for doing so. Inspirational language can be employed in ways that are genuine based on an individual’s experience of persevering; but it can also be employed cynically in ways that appeal to the often-prejudiced assumptions among those unfamiliar with disability.

Cawthorn’s statements and his elisions come into clearer focus when examined alongside the discourses of disability activists who work from their personal experiences toward a broader understanding of disability and finally to policy prescriptions. Judy Heumann, Alice Wong, and Harriet McBryde Johnson are all examples of Disabled activists pushing for equality [10], [14], [24]. They are grounded in a social model, believing in a radical, intersectional equality that can be seen in the inclusive world they intend to build. Heumann, for example, was one of the strongest advocates and voices leading to the implementation of the ADA [22]. Christopher Reeve, on the other hand, spoke more in alignment with the medical model in calling for treatment for those with disabilities based on a medical background gained from his own negative experience. Though they might have disagreements with each other, Heumann, Wong, Johnson, and Reeve all acted as disability activists who, based upon their experiences and their understandings of disability, pushed to change the different ways in which governmental policies affect disabled people. Cawthorn, by contrast, appears to have adopted the aesthetics, rhetoric, and flare of being a disabled person engaged in politics but does not seem to truly understand the implications around those politics. As demonstrated above, he carries negative feelings surrounding his accident and disability, but unlike Reeve, he does not seem to have converted these feelings into a solidified idea for what to do with Disabled people in his role as a member of Congress. Indeed, when one searches for information on what Madison Cawthorn does want for disabled people in the policy realm, there is little to nothing there. Analyzing the disability framework to which Cawthorn subscribes is a vexing exercise because all of the models discussed above, regardless of their flaws, do advance ideas about how to build a better world for disabled people. In the absence of statements from Cawthorn, it seems far more plausible to conclude that he engages with his disability more as a form of cynical opportunism than as a platform for pushing for positive change. While this is a weighty charge, it finds further corroboration beyond the confines of Cawthorn’s convention speech.

Cawthorn’s 2020 campaign portrayed him as a successful small business owner who would have joined the Naval Academy if not for his accident, stressing that although Cawthorn’s disability has changed him, he will persevere and be an agent of conservative change [25]. In these representations, we see again the tendency, flowing from the medical model of disability, to typecast disabled people as heroic or inspirational. Critically, Cawthorn also claimed to be preparing for the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo for Track, and his social media and advertising utilized shots of him training, exercising, and generally struggling as the music builds in intensity and inspiration. The veracity of Cawthorn’s campaign biography has since been questioned on multiple levels [26], [27], but of greatest relevance for this analysis is the lack of evidence that Cawthorn has been training for the Paralympics. He has not participated in any qualifying events, and his would-be teammates and competitors have reported not interacting with him in preparation for Tokyo [28].

While Cawthorn embraces – in some cases dubiously – the aesthetics of being disabled in the public eye, he distances himself from disability issues in his policy platform. He does occasionally call for changes in healthcare policy based on his experience with hospitalization, but these calls tend to be short on specifics. He includes a health care policy platform, like most members of congress, but its brief contents are a more general collection of standard conservative positions on the topic [25]. Proposals for addressing the challenges faced by disabled people, whether through cures or accessibility, are noticeably absent, especially in the light of the Cawthorn campaign’s emphasis on his struggle with disability. This disconnect between aesthetics and policy may well have its roots in the medical model and its process of medicalization.

Medicalization is a concept with broad sociological applications [29], that has found particular uses among feminist, Marxist, and LGBTQ scholars. In the context of those discussions, medicalization is the process by which each struggle becomes viewed from a medical model, where a social condition (e.g., patriarchy, capitalist oppression, or LGBTQ discrimination) is either understood or justified from a medical perspective. If being transgender or homosexual are conditions or pathologies as opposed to being a simple part of the human condition, this carries significant implications for how individuals with these “conditions” should be treated and for the rights that society should afford them [30]. Gender-based injustice and discrimination have frequently been justified in medical terms [31]. Marxists like Mark Fisher have argued that seeing physical and mental illnesses in this strictly medical way can often have the effect of hiding the largely economic causes and solutions for suffering [32]. A poor worker who may be intensely depressed or suicidal, to Fisher, should not be seen only as a medical issue that requires a cure or treatment, but also, and more importantly, as a policy issue in which the real problem may be inhumane working conditions. Perhaps a work schedule that isolates, forces intense labor, and removes rest causes these symptoms more than an underlying pathology. The medicalization surrounding disability, i.e. the perception of disability as a strictly medical phenomenon rather than as one with social and political dimensions, has direct relevance to Madison Cawthorn’s uses of disability.

It is an extreme form of medicalization that allows Cawthorn to effectively compartmentalize disability such that he can foreground the aesthetics of his disability, distort his credentials to an audience unfamiliar enough with the territory to accept the deception, and effectively run as a disabled politician, while saying little or nothing about the politics and policies surrounding disability. The policy prescriptions of this framework, which pushes the medical model to a kind of logical extreme, are sparse. Generally, those who believe in the social model will support efforts to assist the disabled through social services, healthcare reform and advancing accessibility standards. Those who believe in the medical model but still see the politics surrounding disability will push for efforts to research and cure disabilities, or perhaps even reduce individuals’ suffering through eugenic practices. Cawthorn’s hyper-medicalized stance could be interpreted as having no policy implications, but where no push for change exists, that implicitly becomes an acceptance of the status quo for disability policy, including giving no solutions for the real physical and economic harm disabled people currently face in their daily lives.


Disability is present in the lives of a significant number of people. The constructions we use to define, understand, and treat disability can be varied and contradictory. However, it is possible to identify certain prevalent frameworks that ground these discussions, and to trace how these frameworks have real implications in daily life. We can see these frameworks at play when we analyze the rhetoric used by or surrounding disabled figures. The purpose of this paper is to direct a critical eye to the way disability is represented by two figures who have had influential platforms to speak about disability to those with political power. What figures like Reeve and Cawthorn say and how they say it can reinforce or push against pre-existing political and policy frameworks. It is worth noting that the two speeches analyzed here do not reflect the totality of the two speakers’ work. Reeve’s foundation, including while he was president, has fought for the civil rights of those with disabilities, and in their work one can see a focus that will appear far more inclusive than Reeve himself perhaps represented in his speech. Cawthorn is a recent public figure, and while I have taken into consideration more than his speech in the foregoing analysis, there is a possibility that in time his discourse and its policy implications will shift.

My experience with disability, and my relationship to my disability, has also had rapid shifts, and what I imagined must be done for people with disabilities shifted with that relationship. It is a deeply personal concept of myself that inevitably bleeds so much into the political sphere, and it is not always a conscious effort. I cannot know the exact relationship either subject has with their disability, but we can observe with confidence that the way they speak about disability broadly has further implications for the rest of the world, irrespective of the interior relationship. Strategies for shifting cultural perceptions or internal relationships with disabilities lie beyond the scope of this paper but are well worth investigation. It is clear, however, that any such strategy must be founded on an understanding of the discursive frameworks and models at play and what they mean for world building.


This project was intensely personal for me, being reflective of my own journey of understanding my own relationship with my disability and body. Thank you to those who have helped me through that journey: my parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins and friends for seeing the value in myself even when I could not, The Bennett Institute and Kennedy Krieger for helping me learn to feel normal again after my injury, my instructors at Maryland KDF and Salle Palasz alongside my countless HEMA and Parafencing teammates for teaching me how to feel empowered and proud of my the unique experience in my disability, the Rouse Honors Program for allowing me the space and assistance in pursuing this project, and thank you to my countless professors and teachers who have helped give me the tools to express and understand myself.

Contacts: noahkai.hanssen@howardcc.edu, noahkahanssen@gmail.com


[1] C. Atreus, Two Arms and a Head: The Death of a Newly Paraplegic Philosopher, 24-Feb-2008. [Online]. Available: http://www.2arms1head.com/.

[2] “Disability Impacts All of Us Infographic,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 16-Sep-2020. [Online]. Available: https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/disabilityandhealth/infographic-disability-impacts-all.html.

[3] “Current Elected Officials with Disabilities,” National Council on Independent Living, 26-Jan-2021. [Online]. Available: https://ncil.org/elected-officials/.

[4] J. Boyle, “Boyle column: Cawthorn’s ‘Chill the f*@# out’ comment is mind-boggling,” Citizen Times, 03-Oct-2020.

[5] C. Reeve, “Christopher Reeve Address to 1996 Democratic National Convention.” 26-Aug-1996.

[6] M. Cawthorn, “Madison Cawthorn RNC 2020 Speech.” 27-Aug-2020.

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