Marianne Williamson became the most-Googled candidate after the first night of the July Democratic debates on Tuesday, July 30, with what some described as her "refreshing" take on race, health care, and more. However, Williamson has also faced growing scrutiny due to past comments she made about mental health and physical illness. That's why some disability activists are criticizing Marianne Williamson's health care plan, saying that her ideas will make it difficult for people with disabilities to access the care they need.
In her health care proposal on her campaign website, Williamson argues that the United States' health care system is actually a "sickness care system." She believes that restoring strong environmental policies — such as the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act — can help "prevent and reverse chronic disease." Her policy proposal also focuses on "lifestyle changes," nutrition support, a restriction on "overly-processed and sugary foods," and other ideas that are often viewed as examples of "wellness culture." Williamson is not necessarily wrong to argue that environmental, agricultural, and pharmaceutical factors may play a role in illness, but as Rewire.News' Imani Barbarin pointed out, these factors do not diminish the fact that medications and medical interventions can still be necessary.
In addition to talking about everything from food policies to pharmaceutical policies, Williamson has been advocating for a universal health care system in which people who want to keep their private insurance can do so. Two frontrunners — Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren — spent a good chunk of Tuesday night's debate opposing such a system, arguing that universal health care could only succeed if private insurance companies are eliminated altogether.
According to USA Today, Williamson was the most-searched candidate on Google after Tuesday night's debate in every state except Montana. Mainstream media outlets and social media users alike praised Williamson for her surprisingly candid answer on reparations, in which she described reparations as "a debt that is owed" following centuries of slavery and domestic terrorism. But the idea that Williamson had a great night on Tuesday has been a cause for concern for many disability rights advocates, who warn that Williamson's "wellness culture" approach to health care contributes to existing stigma around mental health and chronic illness.
"Why is some of mainstream media puffing her up as this cute thing to laugh at or something that is refreshing?" asks disability activist Sarah Blahovec in an interview with Elite Daily. "She has spent decades telling people with chronic health conditions that it’s largely in their heads and it’s something that they can fix with mindsets, and this is not something that is a simple misspeak." Blahovec calls Williamson's approach to health care a "really dangerous mindset," adding, "It’s something she has built an entire self-help empire on, millions of dollars." Elite Daily reached out to Williamson's campaign for comment on these criticisms, but did not immediately receive a response.
Williamson rose to prominence in the 1980s and '90s due to her work as an AIDS activist and "thought leader" preaching spirituality. Williamson told The Washington Post in February 2019 she does not want to be described as a "New Age guru," but disability activists tell Elite Daily that her rhetoric about "positive thinking" and "lifestyle changes" has definitely attracted a New Age base to her 2020 presidential campaign. Her website, which describes her as a "lecturer, activist and author," notes that she has written 12 books on self-help and spirituality topics, and appeared on TV programs like Oprah and Good Morning America.
So what exactly has Williamson said that has disability rights advocates so concerned? Over the years, she has suggested that antidepressants are overprescribed and ineffective — and that they may even play a role in mass shootings. In the 1980s, Williamson allegedly told gay men with HIV that they would recover if they were just able to visualize doing so, The Daily Beast reported. In 2009, she tweeted that spirituality could protect people from swine flu. And just last week, she described mandatory vaccinations as "draconian" and "Orwellian." Elite Daily has reached out to Williamson's campaign for comment on all of these statements, but did not immediately receive a response. In a Aug. 2 tweet, Williamson described herself as "pro medicine" and "pro science," adding she had never told anyone not to take medicine.
Williamson has also apologized in the past for previously describing clinical depression as "a scam" and for her comments on mandatory vaccines, per MSNBC, but she has nonetheless fostered significant skepticism around these issues. The crux of the criticism that Williamson faces from disability rights advocates, Blahovec tells Elite Daily, is that the idea that positive thinking is more effective in preventing or curing an illness than traditional health care "puts the blame and the burden on disabled people" and "reinforces stigma or negative stereotypes about disability." Instead of doing this, Blahovec says that presidential candidates should be proposing health care plans that guarantee long-term services and support.
Blahovec, who has Crohn's disease, also points out how ideas like Williamson's affect her personally. "I have been told by strangers that lifestyle choices could fix everything," she says, pushing back against the idea. "This is a condition that has to be medically managed."
Lawrence Carter-Long, the director of communications for the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, tells Elite Daily that "Williamson's thinking about disability is stuck in the dark ages." Elite Daily reached out to Williamson's campaign for comment on these criticisms, but did not immediately receive a response.
"Those ideas are flat-out dangerous; blocking out dark forces is no substitute for health care coverage," Carter-Long says, referring to a comment Williamson made during Tuesday night's debate about "the dark psychic force" of Trump's presidency. "Out-of-touch ideas like those should really give voters pause when considering what her policies might mean for 61 million Americans."
Williamson's assertions, coupled with the fact that her health care policy proposal largely focuses on "lifestyle changes" as a remedy for disease, have prompted significant pushback from disability activists — including from disability activists of color, who don't think Williamson's seemingly progressive take on reparations can be assessed in a vacuum.
In November 2018, Reyma McCoy McDeid, a disability activist based in Iowa, published a Facebook post about an encounter she had with Williamson at an event where the self-help author first launched her exploratory committee for her presidential bid. According to her post, McCoy McDeid asked Williamson how she planned to use her privilege to confront issues like systemic racism and an uneven distribution of wealth. Williamson allegedly responded by citing her friendship with Oprah, McCoy McDeid said, and by arguing that "shaming people isn't effective." In McCoy McDeid's view, Williamson's comments about reparations on Tuesday night were an attempt at pandering — not to black voters, but to white liberals who want to "check a box." Elite Daily reached out to Williamson's campaign for comment on these criticisms, but did not immediately receive a response.
"When speaking to black people, she flails, she struggles, and that’s simply not good enough anymore," McCoy McDeid tells Elite Daily in an interview. "Her policies or her proposals ... would be doubly impactful for black people because we are multiply marginalized when disability is also taken into consideration." Elite Daily has reached out to Williamson's campaign for a response to this criticism, but did not immediately receive a response.
On top of these critiques, McCoy McDeid and Blahovec both point out that Williamson recently offered praise on Instagram for a so-called "sheltered workshop" that she visited — just in time for the 29th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). According to Rewire.News, the workshop — Opportunity Village — allegedly pays disabled people less than $1 per hour. Employers in Nevada, where Opportunity Village is located, are legally permitted to pay disabled employees a rate below the minimum wage. Elite Daily reached out to Opportunity Village for comment, but did not immediately hear back. Williamson has since removed the reference to Opportunity Village in her Instagram post, but still uses the phrase "differently abled." While people with disabilities, mental illness, or chronic illness may have specific preferences on terminology, Blahovec says this is not an appropriate term. Elite Daily has reached out to Williamson's campaign for comment, but did not immediately receive a response.
Williamson has been using similar rhetoric to talk about mental health and disability for years, but her performance in the second round of Democratic debates has prompted increased scrutiny of her past remarks. Disability activists have made it clear that Williamson's language and policies aren't just quirky or interesting; they can be downright dangerous.