The most powerful convention speech on Tuesday was delivered by a man who can’t speak—a person crippled with a debilitating, deadly disease who has chosen to devote the last years of his life to political activism.
Ady Barkan is, for many, a now-familiar face. Stricken with ALS, he turned his life mission into advocating for universal health care. Wheelchair bound, he came up to the halls of Congress to lobby against legislation that would undo the Affordable Care Act. Increasingly unable to use his vocal chords, he famously confronted then Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) on an airplane to demand that he take a vote against a tax bill that undid Obamacare’s individual mandate.
Over time, his disease took its obvious toll. But Barkan kept ticking—exhibiting a remarkable commitment to activism that made others in that field feel almost a tinge of guilt that they couldn’t keep up with someone whose strength was quite literally draining away.
On Tuesday night, Barkan offered one more exhibition of his unique ability to weave his personal story into a proactive case for progressive policy. In a video testimonial, he spoke—through the assistance of a computer—of the need to expand health care access beyond where Obamacare had stopped.
“Like so many of you, I have experienced the ways our health care system is fundamentally broken. Enormous costs, denied claims, dehumanizing treatment when we are most in need,” Barkan said.
The pandemic has made clear the “tragic consequences of our failing healthcare system," he said, pointing to “nearly 100 million Americans,” not having the health coverage they need.
“Our loved ones are dying in unsafe nursing homes, our nurses are overwhelmed and unprotected and our essential workers are treated as dispensable,” Barkan said.
Barkan is not, it should be noted, a fullbore Biden booster. During the primary, he criticized Biden for refusing to talk to him during his series of conversations with the Democratic candidates about health care.
His preferred candidate in 2020 was Elizabeth Warren. His ideological soulmate was Bernie Sanders. He’s a single payer proponent, who strongly believes that there are negative consequences for those who want to move in that direction through a piecemeal approach—precisely what Biden has advocated. Barkan and Biden did end up having a digital conversation in July.
But he is not doctrinaire about it either. In an interview with The New York Times before his DNC speech, Barkan made clear that the objective was progress, not perfection. The passage of time didn’t allow for anything else. And for that reason, his speech wasn’t just potent and emotional, it was a distillation of the rationale that many Democrats are adopting this election cycle.
“With the existential threat of another four years of this president we all have a profound obligation to act. Not only to vote, but to make sure that our friends, family and neighbors vote as well,” he said.