In a country that professes all citizens are created equal, online trolling and abuse have become an everyday part of life for many disabled people.
One person who knows all too personally about this is Natalie Weaver, a passionate advocate for disabled children, and mother to Sophia, a nine-year-old girl who suffers from Rett disease, a rare neurological disorder occurring mostly in girls and which affects the ability to speak, walk, eat and breathe.
Sophia, described by her adoring mother as a major daddy's girl who loves to laugh, also has type 1 diabetes, an immune deficiency and an undiagnosed syndrome which causes facial disfigurement.
Despite being inordinately acquainted with the hate directed towards disabled people and their families, Natalie felt her heart drop when she was recently sent a particularly despicable tweet, which used her daughter's image to promote abortion.
The cruel message, written by someone using the Twitter handle of @OBSIDIANSMOAK, read: “It is okay to think that every child matters however a lot of them do not hence the amnio test which should be a mandatory test and if it proves negative and the woman does not want to abort then all bills accrued after that is on her and the father.”
Although the mother of three blocked the account using the photo, it was soon brought to her attention that the photo was still being circulated and that the image was the pinned tweet on the account's profile. It was then that she decided that enough was enough and she and her supporters began reporting the tweet to the social media platform.
Two days later, Twitter responded, claiming that the tweet did not violate its rules and regulations. It was only after Natalie kicked up a fuss and complained once again that Twitter Support acknowledged their mistake, suspended the person who posted the photo and apologised.
But Natalie's battle wasn't over yet. When Julie Ross, a fellow disability advocate, tweeted Natalie to say that Twitter does not include hate against people with disabilities in the form users fill out when reporting a tweet, the young mother took it upon herself to address Twitter's policy issue and is currently fighting for them to include disabilities in their violation reporting.
Speaking to VT, Natalie talked about the stress of having to fend off the trolls at the same time as looking after a sick child.
"It's been very difficult," she said. "I've had days where I'm just crying. It's interesting, I shared my story with a reporter because I wanted to put pressure on Twitter to have the person who was promoting eugenics and using my daughter's image, I wanted them to take it down, and I never imagined it would go viral like this."
She continued: "It's been difficult because this man was using my daughter in a hateful vile way, which has now led to other reporters from right-wing media groups to change the narrative to fit their devices, agenda, they lie which opened me up to more attacks. So a story about hate and attacks on my child has now led to more hate and attacks on my child."
However, Twitter is by no means Natalie's only ongoing battle. As one of the three co-founders of Advocates for Medically Fragile Children NC, she often works with legislators, senators and the Department of Health and Human Services to ensure they are fully educated on the hardships and impact of having a medically fragile child.
As a staunch Trump opposer, she was shocked when she woke up to the news that America had elected a man who openly mocked a disabled person, and when the Republicans unveiled their healthcare bill to repeal the ACA, she sprung into action, knowing the catastrophic effect it could have on her daughter’s health.
Of course, the bill eventually failed, but it was replaced by the tax reform, which is set to increase the deficit by 1.5 trillion dollars. In order to decrease the deficit, the GOP is coming for Medicaid, or Medicare, the joint federal and state program that helps with medical costs for certain people with limited income and resources.
For many families with disabled children across America, Medicaid is a lifeline, given the fact that people are accepted into the optional program based on their disability and not on income. In the USA, even with private insurance, it's almost impossible to afford proper care and many families would go into medical bankruptcy if not for programs like these.
In the Weaver household, Medicaid allows a hospital style set-up complete with nursing, resulting in Sophia being cared for in the comfort of her own home, rather than an institution. If the program is scrapped, scenarios such as these are at risk and Natalie claims that even reducing services for her child could be deadly.
“She's a more extreme case with all her medical needs, so that's why I fight," said Natalie. "I also fight because of many attempts to repeal the ACA, the individual mandate, and people with pre-existing conditions wouldn't be able to afford insurance and ACA provided protection for people with existing conditions. My child has private insurance through an employer but anybody could lose their job, nobody's job is guaranteed, so I'm just overall fighting for the protection of people with chronic illness and disabilities and my child in the process."
Dealing with any disability is always hard, but in the age of Trump, things have become all the more difficult for both disabled people and their families. When asked if she had noticed a shift in certain people's attitudes towards her daughter since the 45th POTUS came to office, Natalie confessed that she believed people were following by example.
"They seem to be a little more bold, people in their attacks towards people with disabilities," she said. "They've seen the president make fun of someone with a disability, so they say 'I can do it', publically attacking my child. I know that the attacks have been there all along before this, but I feel like it has emboldened people to just go after us a little bit more."
She added: "Also, there are these outward attacks on my child because she's disabled. 'Kill her, put her out of her misery, she's a waste of life', those types of things. So you've got these loud vile attacks, but these quiet attacks from our administration to those with disabilities and so it just seems like more of an outwardly open expression of what has been quietly going on behind closed doors with our administration.”
At the end of the day though, no matter who or where it comes from, this vile hate goes hand-in-hand with a strong sense of irony. The thing is, anyone could get a disability at any time and Natalie is crusading for everyone - including her enemies, who claim that her child shouldn't be allowed to live.
The mother-of-three explains: "They're attacking me and I try not to respond, but sometimes there are just days where you can't take it anymore and I feel like 'I'm fighting for you too'. And if something happens to you tomorrow, though you just told me to kill my child, I would fight for you too. Anything could happen to any one of us and healthcare should be a human right."
Perhaps one of the saddest things about the situation is that the trolls attacking Natalie and her child don't even realise that she is waging this war for them too. And they probably never will. But, regardless, the dedicated mother will keep on fighting.
If you've been affected by Natalie and Sophia's story, please consider donating to Advocates for Medically Fragile Children.