It’s personal. My husband and I wept tears of pride and joy as we watched Anastasia Somoza wheel onstage this week and represent people with disabilities to millions of people at the Democratic National Convention. She said that Donald Trump doesn’t see her, and I think of a poem my son wrote that has as its focus the line “I am sometimes invisible.” I have known Anastasia and her twin, Alba, for years, because their mother, Mary, became my mentor when I joined her tribe, a tribe of warrior mothers who fight for the very humanity of their children with disabilities. She taught me how to win the struggle for our son Jesse’s inclusion into public school, the right to a “free and appropriate public education” as guaranteed in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. A right that, though guaranteed, has to be fought for and re-won numerous times over.
It’s personal. When Donald Trump made fun of New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski, who has a congenital joint condition, he also mocked my boy for something he couldn’t help. It’s painful, not just because of the random cruelty, the dismissal of our Jesse as somehow less than human, the invitation to a jeering crowd to mock someone who is different. Watching Trump flapping his hands and inviting the world to laugh with derision at our late son’s spastic hands makes my heart sink even 11 years after his death.
Minimizing the worth of the lives of people living with disabilities is nothing new. Hollywood movies pretty universally tell you that if you have a disability, it would probably be better for everyone if you killed yourself, and those films reflect our culture. The same day that Anastasia Somoza wowed millions of people with her eloquence and courage, 19 people with disabilities were stabbed in Japan in a rampage perpetrated by a killer who wrote that those with disabilities “live as animals, not humans and many must succumb to a wheelchair for life while often being shunned from their own families.” He said his goal was a world “where the severely disabled who cannot manage life at home or be an active member of the society can make the choice of being euthanized with the consent of their guardians. The disabled are only capable of creating unhappiness.” That’s not what anyone who knows Anastasia or Alba would say. They would say that the human spirit soars when presented with dauntless young women who overcome the severest of challenges and then work to lift others and bring them along to live as fully as they can.
I plan to make my vote count this year. I’m with her, the historic candidate who champions inclusion, who believes, as she said in her acceptance address last week, that every kid with a disability has the right to go to school. Hillary Clinton, who didn’t know us but knew that my husband and I were advocates because of Mary Somoza, sent us a kind note with blessings and the hope that the love we shared with Jesse could become our comfort in the dark days after his death. Yes, I’m with her. The killer who wrote the screed about the disabled creating unhappiness was psychologically disturbed and had been hospitalized. He wasn’t a person nominated by the Republican Party for the highest office in the land. That person, Donald Trump, has no diagnosis except that of a man who mocks people with disabilities. I’m with her, never with him.
I have a picture of Jesse and his father. I see his hands, and I know they are bent, the way they were when Donald Trump mocked them. But all I can see are the long, beautiful fingers that struggled to write poems on his computer. “I am sometimes invisible,” he wrote. Anastasia Somoza said Hillary Clinton sees her, and that Donald Trump doesn’t. That’s why I’m with her, because it’s personal. I’m with the person who sees my son and all people with disabilities as valued contributors to an inclusive society, not with the nominee of a once-proud party who thinks it’s OK to mock them.
Marianne Leone, an actress and writer who lives on the South Shore, is the author of “Jesse: A Mother’s Story.”