“Have you tried yoga?”
“Just think positively!”
“Your crutches are only holding you back.”
I’ve heard suggestions like these from strangers and family members alike. Never mind that I have cerebral palsy, a neuromuscular disability that causes me to cramp and cower from any wrong move. Those unfamiliar with my body regularly decide how to treat both my visible and invisible illnesses, with tips based on what they’ve pinned to Pinterest.
This advice isn’t just useless; the people who give it are clearly ignoring my actual circumstances and needs. Marianne Williamson’s views on health care remind me of these knee-jerk declarations—and they strike me as particularly dangerous to legitimize.
After the second round of Democratic presidential debates this week, Marianne Williamson became the most-googled candidate. But as she gains ground, disabled people are growing increasingly nervous over her language regarding health care—including disability, chronic illness, and mental health.
Williamson is trying to set herself apart on health-care policy and paint herself as someone capable of taking on the pharmaceutical industry. During the first round of debates, Williamson proclaimed we “have a sickness care system.” She continued, “What we need to talk about is why so many Americans have unnecessary chronic illnesses.” While acknowledging the role that environmental policies play in health, she also implied that health-care representatives, in order to turn a profit, erroneously diagnose patients with health-care problems.
Pharmaceutical companies do price gouge consumers, but this does not make medication any less necessary for those with chronic pain and illness. By implying that their diseases are a creation of Big Pharma, Williamson is playing (even unintentionally) upon a stereotype of disabled people: that they are not ill, but being alarmist and seeking unnecessary medical interventions.
Many with rare diseases in the disability community spend years and thousands of dollars to have their symptoms taken seriously by medical professionals. The problem is so pervasive that the hashtag #DoctorsAreDickheads began to trend after Youtuber Stevie Boebi discussed her interactions with doctors who ignored her symptoms of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome.
Outside of a medical context, disabled people often find themselves defending their needs and their bodies. Members of the public question whether disabled people are actually disabled or if they’re “faking.” Students battle with university professors who refuse to accommodate them, chronically ill people hide their diagnoses for fear they’ll be pushed out of their jobs, and inaccessible businesses accuse disabled customers of fraudulent lawsuits.
During the second debate, Williamson backed off from voicing her most troubling views on health care, but the health policy page on her campaign website reads more like a self-help book than a realistic plan. Williamson wants to focus on policy changes, the site reads, that “help prevent and reverse chronic disease and create optimal health” and asserts that we live in a “‘disease management’ system not a ‘health care'” system. From the outside, this makes sense; focusing on prevention would drive down the country’s overall cost of care, and people would lead healthier lives.
But there is little acknowledgement of the existence of disabled people. There is no mention of how her plan incorporates the necessary services disabled people need to live day-to-day, or whether it includes supplemental income programs.
In fact, Williamson’s ideas around health policy make me believe she has a phobia of illness and disability. Her recent social media flub around the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, in which she visited a so-called sheltered workshop paying disabled people less than a dollar an hour and referred to “differently abled” people (a term that distances identity from disability because it seems shameful), only supports this theory. It may dismay Williamson to hear this, but there will never be a world in which illness and disability do not exist. Yes, environmental, medical, and other kinds of systemic racism must be addressed, but operating under the premise that they are the sole cause of our health-care problems ignores the complexity of the topic.
As a disabled Black woman, what terrifies me the most is that Williamson’s ideas of how to right societal wrongs for people of color are legitimate. At the same time, her health-care policy rhetoric parrots marginalized peoples’ greatest superstitions regarding the medical system. People of color in the United States have an inherent fear of the health-care industry due to a history of experimentation on Black and brown bodies. Many within our communities wait a long time to seek help—not just because of a fear of how doctors will treat them, but because of stories like the Tuskegee experiment and Henrietta Lacks.
Williamson’s positions on mental health care and vaccinations are nearly identical to statements I heard growing up in a Black church. Leaders and fellow congregants there wrote off symptoms as spiritual blocks or a disconnect from God rather than pushing individuals to seek help from a medical professional, especially for mental illness. It is only in recent years that some churches have grappled with mental health in the Black community.
Williamson is playing off of two separate beliefs: that ailments are concocted to enrich medical professionals, and that spiritual methods may be a more feasible alternative to high health-care costs. Tweets surfaced from 2009 where Williamson, previously a “self-help author and spiritual leader,” proclaimed “God is BIG, swine flu SMALL. See every cell of your body filled with divine light. Pour God’s love on our immune systems. Truth protects.” Just last year, Williamson tweeted “for millennia depression was seen as a spiritual disease, and for many of us it still is.” Another read, “most anti-depressants are being prescribed by Dr.s who aren’t even mental health professionals, & many times when people are simply SAD.”
Black, indigenous, and Latinx communities are specifically vulnerable to high rates of suicide and self-harm. And referring to vaccine mandates as “draconian” and “Orwellian,” as Williamson has done, puts medically vulnerable people in danger, including disabled people. Ironically, this seems to contradict her vision for health care. If she seeks to build a system that drives down health-care costs, wouldn’t vaccinating to prevent infectious diseases and preemptively addressing patients’ mental health be some of the most obvious methods to do so?
In the ‘90s, Williamson opened the Los Angeles Center for Living. While running it, she reportedly proclaimed, “the AIDS virus is not more powerful than God.” After the Daily Beast published a scathing article about Williamson’s history at the center claiming that some acolytes had died after going off their medication, Williamson tweeted that it was “complete and utter lies.” But given similar sentiments she has been espousing for the last few decades about the modern health-care system, her denial seems disingenuous.
With the future of health care still uncertain, Williamson’s ideology is becoming attractive to some members of the public, resulting in extensive social media conversations and glowing op-eds. Because her ideas seem simple, they appear possible. But much like the people who offer me unsolicited advice, she’s not addressing the depth and complexity of her would-be constituents’ medical needs.
There is still plenty Williamson can do aside from running for office with this platform. Has she tried yoga?