March 27, 2024

Senator Tammy Duckworth Is Demanding Rights for Disabled People

The Illinois senator knows what she was elected to do.

Source: ELLE


ELLE - Senator Tammy Duckworth still hasn’t seen Barbie. Last summer, she made headlines when she told Politico that a broken elevator prevented her and other wheelchair users from accessing a movie theater, ruining a planned outing with her daughters. That kind of thing happens to her a lot. When she’s home in Chicago, the Democratic senator from Illinois feels like she can’t even ride the L train, because she doesn’t know whether the station she’s traveling to is up-to-date on posting its accessibility. And once when she was unable to enter a Chicago Drybar, she was told the building was exempt from accessibility requirements because it was built prior to the passage of the watershed Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.

“Don’t you want my money? Don’t you want me to have access, so that I can spend money?” she asks of the many businesses that won’t accommodate her. There’s no question that in so many ways, things are better than they once were for people with disabilities. But so many challenges remain. “We’ve made a lot of headway. People expect there to be access. But I don’t think people understand that there’s still a long way to go.” That’s why she shared the Barbie story. “I want to bring attention to the fact that people are still being left out,” Duckworth says. Even U.S. senators.

Duckworth was born in Bangkok to an American dad and Thai-Chinese mom, and was raised in Hawaii. They were a military family, and Duckworth enlisted in the Army Reserve and was deployed to Iraq with the Illinois National Guard in 2004. Only months in, her helicopter was hit by a grenade and she became a double amputee. In 2014, she had her daughter Abigail, followed by Maile in 2018, becoming the first U.S. senator to give birth while in office. For her, the scope of disability rights extends far beyond building access. In 2022, weeks after the Supreme Court ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade, she and Senator Patty Murray of Washington introduced the Reproductive Healthcare Accessibility Act, to strengthen access to reproductive health care for disabled women, who are 11 times more likely to experience maternal mortality.

In January, she made another effort to shore up reproductive rights, introducing the Access to Family Building Act with Pennsylvania congresswoman Susan Wild. It would establish the statutory right to assistive reproductive technology, which includes IVF and can be critical in helping people with disabilities start families, as it was for Duckworth. “The system is not set up to listen to persons with disabilities. There are even doctors, folks who feel that if you have a disability, you shouldn’t be having children because you can’t properly take care of them,” she says. “There’s a lot of this ableist imagery and notions being put on persons with disabilities. I have two beautiful girls, and I’m grateful for them. I was able to use IVF, and just because I have a disability doesn’t mean that I can’t be a good mom.”

On her biggest goal for her career

“When I chose to serve in the military, I was both a National Guard officer and a staff member at Rotary International, and I dreamed of a future of either working in international aid with the nonprofit that I was working at in my civilian job, or working as a career aviation officer in the Army. But that dream changed the moment an RPG tore through the cockpit of the helicopter that I was copiloting in Iraq. I’m only alive today because of the bravery and heroism of my buddies, who refused to leave me behind and risked their lives to bring my body back home to my family. When I woke up in Walter Reed 11 days later, I vowed to find a way to repay my buddies who brought me home, as well as all of those who sacrifice so much for our great nation. While I can’t fly air assault missions anymore, I found my new mission in public service—using my role as a U.S. senator to not only support our military and veterans, but also strengthen aviation safety, improve the lives of working families, clean up our nation’s drinking water, advance environmental justice, and so much more.”

On the mentor that changed everything for her

“When I was in recovery at Walter Reed after the shoot down, Senator [Dick] Durbin visited me and gave me his card. He told me to call if there was ever a veteran who needed help or a problem that needed fixing—and boy, did I call him a lot! It wasn’t long until he asked me to join him as his State of the Union guest in 2005. Later, he encouraged me to run for office, and the rest is history. I’m forever grateful for his mentorship and honored to work alongside him to improve the lives of Illinoisans.”

On the moment from her career that still amazes her

“The fact that this great nation chose me to represent her in uniform and trusted me to fly Black Hawks still amazes me. Also when I get dressed every day and put on my Senate pin and realize that I’m a U.S. senator who gets to go to work and improve the lives of my fellow Illinoisans.”

On what she wishes she knew before getting into this business

“It never occurred to me that I would have colleagues who would be willing to put their loyalty to a single person over the well-being of the entire country like they have with Donald Trump.”

On how her thoughts around ambition have changed

“My ambition has always been to serve my country and that hasn’t changed.”

On what she got wrong in the past and learned from

“When I was young, I needed to learn how to get out of my own head. I needed to stop worrying about being ‘one of the guys’ and learn to be true to myself. I needed to realize that my own instincts and my own experiences that I bring to the table—not just as a professional, but also as a woman, as a mom, and as a daughter—make me a better leader.”

On the status of women in politics and the progress they have made in terms of equality and representation

“I’ve spent much of my life working in male-dominated fields—first in the military, and now in Congress. From flying helicopters overseas to passing bills in the Senate, I’ve learned time and again the good that comes from bringing a different perspective to the conversation. I was able to better lead my helicopter company when I embraced the fact that I wasn’t just ‘one of the boys’—and I’ve become a better legislator since I became a mom, passing bills that look out for working parents in ways I never would have thought of before I had my two daughters. Time after time, we’ve seen that elevating women only makes this nation stronger. While we’ve made progress, women still hold far less than half of the seats in Congress—despite making up 51 percent of the population. There’s still work to do.”

On the changes that are needed to support women in politics

“We need to get more women into the pipeline among congressional staff so we can have more female chiefs of staff to help us craft the policy that affects millions of Americans and working families. We also need to get more women elected at all levels of government—from your local school board to the United States Senate and, yes, even the presidency.”

On her career mantra

“The Warrior Ethos: I will always place the mission first. I will never accept defeat. I will never quit. I will never leave a fallen comrade.”

By:  Adrienne Gaffney