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President Donald Trump’s first address to Congress was hailed by many as “presidential,” primarily because he didn’t stray far from his prepared remarks on the teleprompter. Despite the pomp and ceremony of the joint session, Trump’s delivery of his 5,000-word speech was replete with inaccuracies, mischaracterizations and fabrications. While touted as his opportunity to unify the country, he instead rattled off a string of divisive policy prescriptions that are red meat to his base, from building a “great, great wall” along the U.S.-Mexico border to increasing military spending by tens of billions of dollars. Among the guests in the chamber was a remarkable 26-year-old African-American woman, Ola Ojewumi, seated in the gallery in her wheelchair.
Ola is alive today, she says, because of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Trump spoke about what he calls the “imploding Obamacare disaster,” calling on Congress to “repeal and replace” the law that has led to an increase of over 20 million people obtaining health insurance. “It was quite scary when I heard his comments about the Affordable Care Act,” Ola told us on the “Democracy Now!” news hour. “I personally was affected. I am the survivor of a heart and kidney transplant. And I was able to receive insurance and stay on my parents’ insurance until I was 26.” She had the transplants when she was 11 years old, and her parents’ health-insurance company tried to boot her off the plan several times. As a result of the transplants, she must take immunosuppressant drugs for the rest of her life. Having recently beaten post-transplant lymphoma, she is a cancer survivor as well.
Despite all she has had to overcome personally, her main focus is helping others: “I get strength from my community and seeing the problems in the world. I knew I was meant to do social justice when, in recent months, I’ve watched the news and literally been brought to tears about the way America is headed and about the regression.” In college, Ola founded Project ASCEND with a $500 tuition-refund check. The group’s mission is “to create higher education opportunities for marginalized and disadvantaged young people across the globe.”
Many of the Democratic congresswomen wore white to the Trump speech, echoing the dress style of the American suffragettes of a century ago. “I had on my white jacket and a red dress. I was proud to see women standing up for what’s right. It’s really remarkable how much power we have as women in understanding that our voices will be heard, even if we aren’t the majority,” she said. “I’m proud of women on the Hill championing our rights and championing Planned Parenthood. They provide a voice for voiceless populations, including women of color and women with disabilities.”
Ola has volunteered with Planned Parenthood, handing out condoms in the annual gay-pride parade in Washington, D.C. “Planned Parenthood’s work in passing the ACA and the ACA having a free birth-control option allowed for women with disabilities, like me, to receive free birth control,” she explained. “We aren’t included in the discussion. Women with disabilities, we have the highest rates of sexual assault, and we are more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than able-bodied women. So, Planned Parenthood Metro Washington gave women like me a voice and taught me how to really protest and advocate on behalf of my group.”
Ola also is critical of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who said during her confirmation hearings that implementation of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act should be left to the states, opening the potential that states could discriminate against students with disabilities. Ola said DeVos shows “a lack of understanding about equal access to education.”
Ola Ojewumi has been through a lot, but clearly has much to more to do. “My message to young activists is: Continue to advocate. Draw inspiration from what you see. Don’t change the channel. Don’t ignore what’s going on in the world. Watch what makes you angry, so it can keep you fired up and keep you in the trenches fighting, because change does not just get done on the Hill. It gets done with your voices and your advocacy. Continue to speak out about anti-Semitism, anti-blackness, Islamophobia. And be sure to be inclusive in your movements ... people with disabilities, people in wheelchairs, our rights matter. Make sure your movements are inclusive of everyone, from every background. We can really change the world together.”