History Just Happened

Clinton’s Speech May Have Been a Turning Point for Americans with Disabilities

I suggest that all of us take a long, hard look at this week make sure we don’t forget. If we ever have the opportunity to talk about history we’ve seen, this moment will probably come up. A serious contender for the U.S. presidency just recognized disability issues and the disability community, and it was not with a token convention slot for a minor speaker. It was the candidate herself discussing the substantive issues that matter to disabled people. Clinton’s speech shows that nuances and depth of her understanding of the people she claims to champion may still have room to grow, but it was truly historic, a moment worth remembering.

It shouldn’t be amazing when a presidential candidate recognizes people with disabilities because we are a large minority. It is, though, because we are, as Clinton acknowledged, “invisible, overlooked[.]” We are often left out of our society’s narratives about itself. Fiction, in any media, that features characters with disabilities who are real people, have realistic impairments, and do things that are not related to their disabilities is so rare as to be groundbreaking. Stuck in disabled-only buildings and classrooms, children with disabilities aren’t always visible in schools. Problems with access to education and discrimination, sometimes subtle, sometimes overt, in hiring, retention, and promotion mean that we are not always visibly part of the workplace. When we are there, many who are able to do so choose to hide their disabilities for fear of such discrimination. We are rarely visible as leaders. People with disabilities are twenty percent of the U.S. population, but we certainly aren’t twenty percent of the people holding elected office. Recent speculation over Clinton’s own health shows some of the reasons for that.

We aren’t always even visible in public. It is becoming less common for people to spend their whole lives in large, state-run institutions, but nursing homes and group homes of an institutional character have replaced them in many places. People in these settings may not be able to go out into the community at will. Even people with disabilities who are living in real homes sometimes struggle to venture out. Physical and sensory accessibility barriers, the lack of needed services and assistance, and poor transit options for people who can’t drive can make it challenging for people to so much as leave their homes.

Our invisibility may be why we have often been ignored by politicians. Even though we are a large minority that anyone can join at any time, our needs are rarely discussed. Even though the whole of society would benefit if one in five Americans could become more included and engaged, the possibility is rarely discussed. Beyond the visionary civil rights laws, a lot of the policy that has been made for people with disabilities is terrible. Crucial programs are underfunded, ineffectual or both. Some policies actually push people away from financial stability, burdening entire families with poverty that doesn’t need to exist. Politicians practically never showcase our concerns, and it is even more rare that they talk about what we want. Clinton’s willingness to do that is what makes her speech truly historic. She brought up some of the same issues that advocates in and of the disability community would have if we had been given that stage, like sheltered workshops where people with some disabilities are paid sub-minimum wages, lack of access to higher education, and the disability community’s abysmal employment rate. She even came out in favor of CRPD. Unlike a lot of non-disabled advocates who claim to support people with disabilities, Clinton did her research and aligned her priorities with her own.

The speech wasn’t perfect. There are aspects of it that a person who lives as part of the disability community, and has for many years, would have handled with more nuance and poise. Clinton used a lot of anecdotes. While this is typical of campaign speeches, it probably rubbed some people with disabilities the wrong way. Accustomed to having our stories exploited as inspiration porn or used against us by people who hope to show that our lives are bad and harmful to others, many of us aren’t comfortable such with brief, by necessity two-dimensional, insistently optimistic portrayals. Someone well-versed in disability culture would have thought hard about the baggage that comes with that narrative choice and might have found a different way to structure the speech to avoid making some of the intended audience feel tokenized.

Clinton also left out an important tension in disability economic issues: disability advocates pretty much all want real work to become more accessible, but we also want people who may never make a net positive economic contribution to be valued, respected, safe, and happy. Work should be the norm for disabled adults because the fact that it is the norm for adults in our society makes it an important locus of inclusion. However, to care about disability justice is to understand that people have value apart from their output. Clinton’s emphasis on work left some advocates worried that her agenda will leave people who cannot be justified in economic terms behind. She would also have done well to acknowledge the disability community’s incredible diversity.

Such speeches, though, have to appeal to people beyond their intended audiences and stay within tight time constraints. Clinton never suggested that work and money are the only way to value a life, talking about benefits has a narrower appeal in a tight election, and work may be a more achievable campaign promise in today’s political climate than benefits reform, even though the latter is as desperately needed as the former. With all of those realities considered, it probably only makes sense to fault her for not touching on intersectionality, the easiest of the things she left out to recognize and include. Those pressures and Clinton’s efforts to speak to a culture she is likely still learning, not some kind of bad motive, probably explain the speech’s flaws. Her choice to tell the story about Christopher Reeves and share the quote that “‘we all have value’” is hard to characterize as a rejection of people whose value is other than economic.

Clinton is trying to pick up a language that is not her own. While she stumbled over some of the finer nuances that take many people time to grasp, she got enough of the message across to show her interest in and understanding of where we are and where we want to go. She knows that we excel and contribute to society today, despite the obstacles we have to overcome. She knows we want barriers removed so that more of us can “lead rich, full lives[.]” She knows that, when we work, we want real pay. She knows we want “respect.” If her past behavior and request for policy suggestions are predictive of her willingness to learn, her ability to express those points, and to advocate for people with disabilities, will only grow. Her choice to learn as much as she has and bring national attention to disability issues is an historic moment for the disability community. If she is elected and continues to show interest in our issues, her presidency will be, too.

Originally published at autisticfuture.com on September 23, 2016.