Why mobility is a free speech issue

On Monday, Sept. 25, according to the captioning of a HuffPost video,

Over 200 protesters gathered at a Senate Finance Committee hearing for the latest version of the Graham-Cassidy Bill, the latest effort to repeal and replace Obamacare, which would gut Medicaid and allow states to raise premiums on individuals with pre-existing conditions. Protests began as soon as the hearing did.

The next day, The New York Times ran an article with the following lede:

Saudi Arabia announced on Tuesday that it would allow women to drive, ending a longstanding policy that has become a global symbol of the oppression of women in the ultraconservative kingdom.

Other than the week in which they took place, these two events have something else in common: They both illustrate how mobility — or lack thereof — is a free speech issue.

Medicaid is crucial for mentally and/or physically disabled people wishing to live with agency and autonomy. Yet, as stated on the website of Disability Rights Ohio, “an individual with a ‘pre-existing condition,’ such as mental illness, may be denied coverage for that condition as long as other employees … are denied coverage for their pre-existing condition.”

So, in the absence of Obamacare, people with disabilities (PWD) may not be able to afford or have any access to subsidized medication or other essential kinds of treatment. Moreover, many PWD (*raises hand*) can’t work part-time jobs, or even, whether due to architecture or any number of other reasons, full-time jobs, making them inherently ineligible for company insurance. No employer = no employer coverage.

Obviously, speech isn’t always spoken or uttered in protest; a person may be born with a significant speech disorder or impairment, or simply have no desire to speak out on a particular subject on a given occasion.  But when a person with a disability wishes to exercise their right to free speech, it is absolutely (and, in the U.S., constitutionally) essential to allow it. Yet while it seems that healthcare has been saved, at least for the time being, this was not the first time that PWD were forcibly removed from a public forum simply for exercising their first-amendment rights; as such, it is likely not the last.

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U.S. Capitol Police arrest a protester. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Mobility Matters

The New Oxford American Dictionary gives two definitions of mobility: “the ability to move or be moved freely and easily,” and “the ability to move between different levels in society or employment.” 

It may seem, then, that these PWD do have mobility; after all, the ones with physical handicaps are equipped with wheelchairs. However, although they may move easily, they weren’t being moved freely. Though they peaceably assembled, Capitol police stripped many of the protestors of their mobility by pulling their wheelchairs out of the room against their will, thus keeping them from advocating for the preservation of what they need to be socially mobile: Medicaid. 

‘Moving’ Forward

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A woman behind the wheel in Saudi Arabia. (Photo by Faissal Al Nasser/Reuters)

Assuredly, Saudi women are reacting so elatedly to the news because of the newfound agency it has brought them. And they apparently were not the only ones celebrating. To quote Ben Hubbard, “Saudi leaders … hope the new policy will help the economy by increasing women’s participation in the workplace.” 

What the my dictionary app fails to mention is that in its entry on mobility, the first definition begets the second: The ability to move freely and easily facilitates movement between different levels in society or employment. Whether they seek employment, or guaranteed well-being even in unemployment, all people, including and especially women and PWD, have the right to move or to stay right where they are, thank you very much. And we need to do everything we can to protect that right.