As A Disability Rights Advocate, I Want Tom Perez To Be Chair Of The DNC

The secretary of labor is the best choice to protect my son and other disabled Americans.

If, like me, you were devastated by the outcome of the presidential election and are looking for someone to believe in, consider this ray of hope: last month, labor secretary Tom Perez announced his candidacy for chair of the Democratic National Committee. With his long-term investment in and championing of civil and disability rights, Perez’s announcement let me exhale for the first time in weeks.

When I say I’m devastated by the election, that’s a euphemism: I’m terrified about a proud Ignoramus-in-Chief taking charge of my country in less than a week. I’m scared my autistic son will be harassed due to Trump’s enabling of outright bigotry against minority groups like the autistic and disability communities. I shudder every time our president-elect makes proclamations about repealing the Affordable Care Act and its protections for people with pre-existing conditions, or spews misinformation about vaccines causing autism (no, FFS, they don’t).

The disability community is reeling, too: After the election, people with disabilities gathered online during a CripTheVote TweetChat on “What’s Next,” and several echoed Disability Visibility Project founder Alice Wong in expressing, as Wong put it, “a lot of fear. Well-founded fear. I’ve always been in touch with my vulnerability as a disabled person but this is new.”

I’m terrified about a proud Ignoramus-in-Chief taking charge of my country in less than a week.

We need a leader like Perez, a former civil rights lawyer, if we are to protect the rights and well-being of people with disabilities and push back productively against Trump’s discriminatory beliefs, staff, and supporters. We need a Chairman with Perez’s history as a supporter and enforcer of disability rights. We need his proven ability to engage with his opposition constructively, rather than through ridicule or open combat. And we need to understand that Trump’s brazen cronyism and political strip-mining can be most effectively countered by someone with Perez’s personal understanding of the damage an authoritarian leader can unleash on a country. (Perez’s maternal grandfather, formerly the Dominican Republic’s ambassador to the U.S., was declared persona non grata by dictator Rafael Trujillo.)

Perez speaks on a panel celebrating the Americans with Disabilities Act’s 25th anniversary.

Democrats need a chair who will stand up for disenfranchised groups like the disability community because it is the right thing to do, and also because they recognize that people with disabilities are a significant untapped political force. As Sarah Pripas Kapit, editor of Perseverations: A Journal of Autistic Literature, told me, “We need to make it clear to people that disability rights are political. People’s lives depend upon whom we elect to office. Perez has a demonstrated commitment to disability rights, so I trust him more than I do others who are less experienced when it comes to tackling our issues.”

I share Pripas Kapit’s trust, given Perez’s well-documented history as a supporter and enforcer of one of the most misunderstood disability policies in recent history: the Olmstead Decision, which considers the segregation of people with disabilities a violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act. (Basically: disabled people do not deserve to be institutionalized or kept apart from their communities, including people like my son who rely on 1:1 supervision.) Perez most notably used his position as head of the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice to help bring the state of Virginia into compliance with Olmstead, closing the state’s institutions and expanding community integration services for people with disabilities. Perez then met, and had open conversations with, distraught and concerned stakeholders, so he could answer their questions about the new policies. In doing so he demonstrated his concern for all the people his department’s policies affect, not only those who support his decisions.

Alison Barkoff, who is the sibling of a person with a disability, and who worked with Perez at the Department of Justice as special council on Olmstead enforcement until 2014, says that this openness to opposing views is what forever sticks with her about Perez: “He deals with tough crowds, by choice, because he thinks it is important that we show our serious commitment.” She says she personally admires him because this approach shows, “his commitment, and his spine.”

Many people with disabilities are at the mercy of policies that blatantly ignore Olmstead, as well as of family members who badly misunderstand what Olmstead means. If the Democratic party is led by someone like Perez, who understands that people with disabilities deserve to be fully integrated into the community, that will help ease my mind during the forthcoming presidential term.

If the Democratic party is led by someone who understands that people with disabilities deserve to be fully integrated into the community, that will help ease my mind.

Perez has also demonstrated leadership as secretary of labor, in his fight for fair wages for people with disabilities. President Obama’s 2014 executive order raised the minimum wage for all workers on specific federal contracts, but it did not include people with disabilities who were earning sub-minimum wages — and these workers and their supporters became quite vocal in their protests over being excluded. Perez listened to their complaints, and through his efforts, the contract eventually included the workers with disabilities. (Barkoff is hopeful that Perez’s influence in this area will lead to the Democratic party taking a position on, and eventually phasing out, the sub-minimum wage for people with disabilities, in general.)

As I was writing this article, I talked about it with my teenage kids. They are enthusiastic supporters of their brother and the wider disability community, but they have other concerns. My seventh grader wanted to know: “So, Perez is great on disability issues. But what is he going to do for the LGBT community?” I reassured her that, while at the Department of Justice, Perez was tireless in pursuing and enforcing policies to eliminate discrimination and in convicting perpetrators of hate crimes against LGBT people in schools, the workplace, and the community.

Perez’s demonstrated commitment to justice for underrepresented groups includes bringing the might of the Department of Justice down on Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, for discriminating against local Latinxs and violating their constitutional rights. While at the DOJ, Perez also investigated the murder of Trayvon Martin as a race-based hate crime, in addition to his unprecedented DOJ efforts to investigate and combat police brutality, though he left the DOJ to become secretary of labor in 2013. He has demonstrated a devotion to civil rights issues, on all fronts, not just disability matters.

Now that Trump will be in charge, we need a DNC chair with the knowledge, experience, investment, and mettle to counterbalance the potential damage.

There was still much work to do on the disability rights front even before the election, but at least I was optimistic; Clinton had a dedicated autism plan, and prominently included the disability community in her campaign. Now that Trump will be in charge, and since he plans to systematically undermine so many policies that affect people with disabilities, we need a DNC chair with the knowledge, experience, investment, and mettle to counterbalance all that potential damage. The Democratic National Committee will be voting for its leader early in the new year, and I am crossing my fingers that we’ll see Perez at its helm.