Strangled by my bootstraps

Confessions of a disabled conservative

Photo Illustration by Ginger Fierstein

M. Dylan McClelland is a Sacramento-based attorney and political consultant

Raised by a single mother, a nurse who worked two jobs, I was your basic American kid—absorbed with school and sports. Until the stroke. At 17, I suffered a cerebral hemorrhage from a rare malformation. Blinding pain, hours of vomiting and confusion. I survived; two weeks later, I was running. Six months after that, I graduated high school with honors. Unfortunately, the treatment that saved my life left me an impaired and weak left side. I recall during radio-surgery, as they screwed a metal halo into my skull, my mother telling me that if I just endured its indignities, the rest of life’s struggles would pale in comparison. And she was right, as a mother’s insights always are: It was a perspective that shaped each of my challenges for the next decade.

Dismissed from the start, I toiled. Liberated by the disabled community’s cult of low expectations, I surged ahead. This was my entitlement program—a naive belief that since I had endured so much so young, the rest of my life would unfold easily. It lacked a monthly stipend but was immensely more valuable—a “gut check” that could be cashed everyday.

I struggled and risked. I failed, and I succeeded. I graduated college and law school at the top of my classes. Before graduating college, I was a respected staffer for the governor of the largest state in the country, and I received a full scholarship to law school. I earned respect no government subsidy could ever confer.

I went on to become a law clerk for the presiding justice of an appeals court, a lawyer with a national firm and eventually the founder of my own firm. I triumphed against some of this nation’s finest lobbyists, lawyers, litigators and political operatives. And I witnessed firsthand a government bureaucracy utterly incapable of comprehending that a disabled person might choose to reject entitlements like Social Security and Medicare. A close examination of these programs revealed them as quicksand. Once enrolled, the disincentives to employment are manifest (benefits reductions) and the risks catastrophic. But, determined to stand on my own two feet and compete, I declined. I pulled myself up by my bootstraps, and I won. I bought a home and a German luxury car; I owed no one anything and had accomplished all of my professional goals before I was 30. Everything was, compared with brain surgery, effortless.

Until the meat truck ran me down in a crosswalk. Hitting the blacktop courtesy of a 6,000-pound vehicle is … uncomfortable?

More than a decade of post-stroke recovery was erased in an instant. I suffered a neurological injury, spasticity and hemiparesis, still directing my body to try to rip itself in half. My professional life was in ruins, I lived with unremitting pain, and I took more pills than Courtney Love on a weekend bender. I never asked the world for anything other than a chance to stand on my own two feet and live it my way. And I did apparently pretty well for a while. And I didn’t know what to do anymore as I tried to hang on to a life I no longer felt entitled to—a life I could no longer earn. I was strangled by my bootstraps.

I am a conservative. Centrally, conservatives champion the belief that the individual, not the government, can create the greatest good if only left free to engage liberty. This core principle opposes affirmative action based on merit-excluding criteria like race and gender and argues that lower taxes benefit the individual. And it is this principle that lauds the underdogs, those individuals who through hard work, brains and talent succeed where statistics demand failure. It is an idealism prizing opportunity, not outcome. A belief in the effort, not the effect. Conservatives embrace “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” success stories. The Colin Powells, Condi Rices and Arnold Schwarzeneggers.

My entire ideology is tied up in the conservative belief that I am entitled to only what I can earn through hard work, talent and brains—to only those opportunities my bootstraps can reach. But I pleaded, “What do you do when you can’t live your own ideal, when your bootstraps strangle you in a daily reminder that you’re out of rope? When it hurts so bad there’s no hope left?”

You grasp the end of the bootstrap you have left, and you pull. That you fall each night matters not. You look long into Nietzsche’s abyss, and sense it gaping back at you. But you pull. You survive. You tap credit lines, you cut costs, you push your body in rehab until it bleeds, you discard the deceptive cradle of prescription medication, and you get it done. And sometimes, as did I, you survive long enough for karma to rebound. You survive long enough for your mind, spirit and body to heal. Such is the hope of conservatism—that as individuals we create the last, best hope for our country, our communities and ourselves. No government program can replicate the respect and hope borne from the blessings and tragedies of life.

The disabled community suffers far higher unemployment than any other minority group. Educational outcomes are abysmal despite federal and state laws requiring equal education. While the disability movement’s activism embraced passage of the opportunity-centric Americans with Disabilities Act, the movement’s hub degenerated into familiar refrains: insisting on more government largesse and more “understanding of structural hurdles.” Nearly 35 years following the promise of the Rehabilitation Act of 1972, poverty rates remain uncomfortably high.

The actor and comedian Bill Cosby garners acclaim and acrimony alike urging the black community to embrace education, initiative and responsibility. Perhaps a timely query: Where is the disabled community’s Bill Cosby?

The offensive notion that the disabled “need” government aid is absurd and offensively apologist. The foremost cosmologist in the world, Stephen Hawking, is disabled, profoundly so. Both political parties in America have been led by disabled individuals: Bob Dole and former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The disabled are global stakeholders.

The black community once immersed itself in semantic pilgrimages of political correctness fretting over, e.g., the propriety of Ebonics. So, too, has the disabled community drowned in labels such as “differently abled,” “institutional hurdles” or “persons with disabilities,” in a lamentable attempt to secure dignity through epithet instead of by achievement. At what point will a sympathetic taxpayer body politic grow weary of subsidizing an entire group that shuns higher expectations?