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Story highlights

David Perry: At Values Voters event, GOP Rep. Louis Gohmert made fun of people with disabilities while mocking Clinton

Perry: Trump mocked a reporter with disability, Coulter said Trump was mimicking a "standard retard"

Perry: This doesn't play with many voters. And voters with disabilities will make views known at ballot box

Editor’s Note: David M. Perry is an associate professor of history at Dominican University in Illinois. He writes regularly at his blog: “How Did We Get Into This Mess?” Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN) —  

On Friday morning, Representative Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) stood before the Values Voters Summit and made fun of people with disabilities.

After a joke about people running for office being “no-brainers,” he got mock-serious. “And I do want to warn,” he said, “Since most people here are Christians … A true believer does what Jesus did … you don’t make fun of people who are impaired, have special needs. And whether you like her or not, Hillary Clinton has made clear she is mentally impaired.”

The crowd then displayed their values, laughing and clapping loudly.

This is funny?

David M. Perry
David M. Perry

Everyone needs to stop using disability as a punchline. Whatever you think of Clinton, jokes from people who should be leaders – like Gohmert – and the crowd’s giddy response come with very real collateral damage for millions of people with disabilities whose humanity is too easily ignored.

For example? Stigma prevents disabled workers fully able to participate in the job market from achieving financial independence. Objectifying people with disabilities has a direct connection to the high rate in which people with disabilities are both sexually assaulted and denied the right to have consensual sex. Meanwhile, rather than being integrated into communities, people with disabilities remain trapped in jails, nursing homes and psychiatric institutions. The work to do is vast, should be nonpartisan, and Louie Gohmert isn’t helping.

What’s worse, it’s not just him.

What is it with Republicans making fun of people with disabilities this election cycle? Haven’t they learned their lesson? And will the millions of disabled voters and the many more who are tightly connected to people with disabilities punish them at the polls for their horrible humor?

11:37 - Source: CNN
Top adviser: Never known Trump to say something inaccurate

It started last fall when Donald Trump made fun of a New York Times reporter who is disabled. Trump claimed that Serge Kovaleski has reported on New Jersey Muslims celebrating 9/11. Kovaleski, a brilliant reporter, hadn’t, and said so. Trump took to the state in South Carolina and flailed his arm about, dropping his wrist, in a way that mimicked Kovaleski’s actual disability—he has arthrogryposis.

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Taking on a silly voice, Trump said, “‘Ah, I don’t know what I said! I don’t remember!’”

The scene has been played now millions of times, in part because Democrats discovered it’s a powerful wedge to drive between Trump and his potential voters. It’s led to numerous ads from pro-Clinton forces. There may be many traditional GOP voters willing to overlook remarks by Trump that I find racist, sexist or fascist, but mocking people with disabilities still makes them hesitate.

The GOP knows it. Trump, a man who defines himself as unapologetic and not politically correct, has tried to explain that he was just being “very expressive.” Voters didn’t buy it, so Ann Coulter, in her new book “In Trump We Trust,” tried a new tactic. She wrote, “It’s true that Trump was not mimicking any mannerisms that Serge has. He doesn’t jerk around or flail his arms. He’s not retarded. He sits calmly, but if you look at his wrists, you’ll see they are curved in. That’s not the imitation Trump was doing – he was doing a standard retard, waving his arms and sounding stupid.”

It’s not just Coulter, who has a long history of using such ableist slurs, or Trump. Over the past month, the mainstream GOP has adopted fringe alt-right conspiracy theories that Clinton has a “secret illness.”

The media, eager to report “both sides,” has now begun to report on whether Clinton coughs. When I pushed back against the coughing meme on Twitter, my account was flooded with conspiracy theorists telling me her coughing is a sign of Parkinson’s, epilepsy, strokes, cancer and dozens of other conditions.

Now Gohmert, speaking before Christians, draws laughs by saying that Clinton has special needs or that maybe she was hit in the head by one of the hammers used to destroy BlackBerries. His audience loved it.

But America doesn’t. Thanks to the efforts of groups like #CripTheVote and #RevUp from the American Association of People with Disabilities, the disability community has never been more organized.

Gregg Beratran, one of the founders of the #CripTheVote movement, told me, “I think that this has become an alarming trend. More and more we seem to see disability used as a means of disparaging people we disagree with. They all seem to think that their politics justify or outweigh the harm they do to the disability community.”

Andrew Pulrang, another founder, added, “Disabled people in ordinary life are dismissed in this way all the time. You’re ‘crazy’ so there’s no need to hear what you say. You’re sick or disabled, so of course you’re not a serious person in whatever field is being discussed. These kinds of remarks in politics bring this everyday ableism to a national scale.” These organizations are ready to make sure that people relying on disability stigma to insult their opponents will lose at the ballot box.

I am an equal-opportunity critic of ableist taunting of people with disabilities. In 2008, I criticized Democrats who objectified Trig Palin, Sarah Palin’s son with Down syndrome. I spoke out against Rahm Emanuel’s use of the r-word and when Obama joked about the Special Olympics. Just this last July for CNN, I objected to the attempt to label Donald Trump “crazy” as stigmatizing and ableist.

Now it’s the GOP’s turn. Stop making fun of people with disabilities. Speak out when your candidates, elected officials, and intellectual leaders do it. If you won’t do it for me, for my family, for the people you know who have disabilities, or in order to fight stigma, then fine. Do it because you want to win. It turns out, no one likes a bully.