Ady Barkan | Credit: Interdisciplinary Humanities Center, UCSB (file)

Ady Barkan, Santa Barbara resident and national health-care reform advocate,  addressed the entire nation during the second night of Democratic National Convention from the cruel if comforting confines of his wheelchair but only with the assistance of the computerized voice box that his disease — ALS — now requires of him for speech. Since being sticken with ALS — a degenerative and debilitating neurological disease — in 2016, Barkan has emerged on the national stage as a compelling if outspoken voice for Medicare for All, an issue on which he and Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden disagree. Even so, Barkan was making a strong case for Biden Tuesday night, highlighting the former vice president’s support for the Affordable Care Act and incumbent President Donald Trump’s relentless efforts to destroy it. 

The video clip showed a much healthier Barkan from two years ago — still able to talk on his own — scooting around Capitol Hill on an electric wheelchair, knocking on the doors of health-care reform opponents like that of former Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. In the years since, ALS has clearly taken an increased toll on Barkan, who spoke of “the enormous costs, denied claims, dehumanizing treatment when we are most in need.” Biden and the Democrats clearly intend to make health-care reform a major point of demarcation separating them from the Trump White House, which even now in the throes of the COVID pandemic has sought to weaken or eliminate outright the Affordable Care Act, the signature accomplishment of the Obama-Biden White House. 

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In an interview with the New York Times prior to his Tuesday-night speech, Barkan — who initially endorsed the candidacy of Senator Elizabeth Warren — stated, “I want to convey two ideas: that defeating Trump is essential, even if you don’t love Joe Biden, and that none of our struggles will be over after this election. We need to keep on keepin’ on.” Barkan argued that the pandemic highlights how “dangerous it is to tie insurance to employment.” Barkan — an attorney — was already a progressive activist when he moved to Santa Barbara with his wife, UCSB professor Rachael King. Since his diagnosis with Lou Gehrig’s disease, Barkan has only accelerated his activism. 

Two years ago, Barkan confronted Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona on an airplane they happened to be sharing, urging him to vote against what was then the Republicans’ massive tax cut bill. The tax cuts put Medicare funding at risk, Barkan told Flake, and Medicare cuts put in peril special treatment upon which his life depended.  “You can be a hero. Think about it,” Barkan told the Senator. “You can save my life. Please.” That encounter was captured on video and subsequently went viral. 

CORRECTION: Former Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan was a representative from Wisconsin not Illinois.

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