I think the first person’s face – aside from those of my parents – that I readily recognized was newscaster Jim Lehrer from the PBS NewsHour. His calm voice and demeanor reached me as I was playing or eating dinner, always on in the background while my household kept up on the latest wars and political events. Because I was homeschooled to a certain degree, I got all my history from TV and listening to people talking at events like birthday parties and holidays. The history I heard was a mash-up of the liberal leanings from public radio and the post-communist irony of displaced Serbs who continued to roast a pig on their family saint’s day and Christmas (on the orthodox calendar).
My experience with US history officially started in high school where I took my first general education classes. It was disappointing in several ways: first, other students seemed not to care about learning the details surrounding how our government functioned. Also, it was hard to go deeply into a topic because many students had to make stupid comments or tried to incite arguments they didn’t even believe in.
And then sophomore year, Trump was elected, and I saw my history teacher break down in tears. I went to the Women’s March on Portland with my mom and sister, and carried a poster that read, “Autistic and Proud.” It was the first time I had publicly outed myself as neurodivergent, and if there’s anything I can credit the Trump administration with, it’s for instilling a sense of personal identity which sharpened my lens through which I saw the world. I felt more connection with the people who were marching than with my peers because the crowd was angry, almost as frustratingly angry as I found myself daily trying to navigate a world not designed to include me. For that predominantly white crowd, it may have been their first taste of not feeling welcomed in their country. It made my classmates pay more attention to what was going on around them and personalize it. This, I’m sure, energized our teacher, and he taught us everything about the incoming administration’s potential pitfalls given Trump’s cabinet picks.
Over the last four years, I learned about the overlap between the so-called Republican ideal of little federal oversight and cronyism; how nepotism has its roots in dictators; and how laws can be ignored if you’re powerful enough and surround yourself with people who tell you what you want to hear. Most of all, I saw the segregated space set aside for people like me every time someone shared that video of Trump impersonating the disabled reporter at a rally; I heard that echo chamber filled with the audience’s laughter, and I would get enraged to the point where my brain could cannibalize itself out of helplessness.
Then I would remember the light connecting each and every one of us at the women’s march; the look of new understanding in the eyes of a classmate after I shared a life experience they could not even imagine; and the feedback from a room of professionals who worked with people like me, but never actually had an opportunity to listen to them. These encounters have empowered my activism in this most lonely time where people like me are narrowed down to their four walls and a computer (on a good day). My vaccination appointment next week has all the makings of a personal Armistice Day, and I can only regard the Biden administration as a peace envoy for the next two years during which time we chart a progressive path forward or succumb to a smarter, better organized Trump-wannabe.
For my part, I plan to keep on fighting for disabled voices. For example, it’s time to bring back the IACC [Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee] which fell off the map last year. There need to be stimulus checks for dependents over 18 who are claimed on their parents’ taxes that is retroactive to the start of the pandemic. This disparity is unfair and ableist. After all, these families are hurting like everyone is, but their disabled family member faces so many hurdles in the pre-pandemic time (like unemployment, housing insecurity, and isolation) that many families are now experiencing firsthand.
It’s important to recognize that many people are being treated how disabled people are marginalized every day! Let’s normalize working from home, supporting families with vulnerable members through flexible schedules, and creating space in schools for those who learn better online and at their own pace. Let’s make sure that those of us who rely on personal support workers or live in congregate housing are getting vaccinated early so that we can make sure our bubbles are protected. Let’s never lose sight of the lessons we had to learn this last year when the dust settles, and life returns to a new normal for most of us.