Disabled Americans Get Political

As Hillary Clinton celebrated her victories on Super Tuesday, she issued a practiced call for “breaking down barriers” that stand between various specific groups and success. She started with the working class, broadly, then shifted to various distinct identity groups, saying, “We can break down barriers for families who have seen too many black children harassed, humiliated, and even killed. We can break down barriers for voters in North Carolina who have been systemically disenfranchised. We can break down barriers for hard-working immigrants who are too often exploited and intimidated. We have to defend all our rights, workers’ rights and women’s rights, civil rights and voting rights, LGBT rights and rights for people with disabilities.”

If there’s one good thing to come out of the 2016 primary season, it’s this — disabled Americans are getting political and making politicians pay attention.

There are over 56 million Americans who identify as disabled, making them the largest minority group in the country. Add the tens of millions of caregivers and family members, and you’ve got a population large enough to sway any election. Yet despite this potential power, disability has rarely featured prominently in prime-time political speeches, especially not in ways that explicitly link the economic struggles of disabled Americans with those of other marginalized groups.

Clinton’s latest speech was not her first major engagement with disability issues, nor is she alone. Clinton released a plan to help people with autism earlier this year and started including disability rights in her stump speeches just before the New Hampshire primary. The Sanders campaign, likewise, has begun to talk about disability explicitly, linking it to their call for both health-care reform and jobs. After Sanders won in New Hampshire, he said, “We must pursue the fight for women’s rights, for gay rights, for disability rights.” Republicans have been quieter on disability, but both Jeb Bush and John Kasich have strong track records on relevant issues. Bush, of course, has left the race, and Kasich has not able to build on his second-place finish in New Hampshire.

Disabled Americans routinely struggle with economic, social, and cultural marginalization, a struggle often misunderstood as a factor of being disabled, rather than due to stigma. With marginalization comes silencing, passing, invisibility, and the fragmentation of the community. Disabled Americans have not consistently identified as a coherent interest group seeking to wield political power and forcing candidates to take notice. No wonder it’s been hard for people with disabilities to leverage their numbers into political power, and easy for politicians to overlook them.

At least three factors, however, have come into play in the 2016 electoral cycle that seem to be changing things. First, disabled Americans increasingly see disability as an identity rather than as a medical problem. They promote a “social model of disability,” in which impairment happens not because of a body or mind that is atypical, but because of stigma and rampant inaccessibility. While access to medical care certainly matters as a political issue, the radical differences among the medical needs of disabled Americans has made it hard to organize around such issues. Stigma and discrimination, though, can cross categories of disability, and serve as a unifying force.

Second, disability rights organizations are finding new ways to get political. Many organizations have long posted voter guides, and work-around accessibility and voting takes place around the country. Lately, though, I’ve been particularly impressed by RespectAbility (Note: RespectAbility provided this author with travel funding to observe accessible voting and meet with disability rights leaders in New Hampshire). This non-partisan disability rights organization has invested heavily in getting presidential candidates on the record about disability issues. They send reporters, many of whom openly identify themselves as disabled, to candidate-events around the country in order to ask questions about disability issues. They’ve also urged candidates to fill out a detailed questionnaire on disability issues, and have published the results. Every campaign has at least partially responded to this call, except for Trump, Rubio, and Cruz.

Third, the rise of social media, as it has for so many other groups, has allowed historically marginalized people to network and build community. Campaigns like #CripTheVote, the Disability Visibility Project, and #SayTheWord (the word is “disabled,” rather than some euphemism like “special needs”) unite people with different diagnoses around common causes. Twitter and Facebook are both relatively accessible, allowing people who do not travel easily to connect with each other. On a given day, I will tweet with wheelchair users who do not travel, blind individuals using screen readers or braille displays, autistic self-advocates, deaf individuals who do not read lips (and I do not sign), and at least some people with psycho-social disabilities who would never be comfortable in a crowded room for a political meeting.

I exchanged emails with Andrew Pulrang, Gregg Beratan, and Alice Wong, the three co-founders of #CripTheVote about the movement. All three emphasized the diversity of the disability community as both a challenge to organization and a strength. Beratan wrote, “We live in a society that has spent much of its existence either ignoring or disempowering disabled voices, and our lack of political power isn’t much of a surprise.” In part as a result, Pulrang suggested, “There are probably more disabled people who never or rarely view disability in a political or social way than there are disabled people who are activists. Most disabled people adhere to a coping strategy of personal advocacy on very specific problems, as needed, but otherwise to being agreeable, keeping their heads down, and blending in as much as possible.”

That’s where hashtag activism can effect change — building ties and awareness among the diverse community. Wong confirms my sense that the accessibility of Twitter matters, writing, “There are limitations to it, but as a disabled person who found her ‘tribe’ on social media, it’s opened up a whole new world for me. It’s radically expanded my reach and definition of activism.”

So what happens next as the field winnows? How might these issues play out in the general election?

Disability issues are not inherently partisan; rather, disabled Americans want jobs, accessibility, and a fair shot at the American dream. Republicans have often been willing to embrace government-related solutions when it comes to fostering access to that dream. George H. W. Bush signed the ADA in 1990 and George W. Bush signed the ADA Amendments Act of 2008. These two laws form the bedrock of federal protection of disability rights. Moreover, the deeply gridlocked congresses of the last few years passed two bills related to jobs for those with disabilities, and with overwhelming bipartisan majorities: The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) of 2013 passed 415–6 in the House and 95–3 in the Senate, and the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act of 2014 passed 404–6 in the House and 76–16 in the Senate. This history makes it clear that any candidate from any party could reach out to the largest minority in America.

As the dynamic stands now, both Democratic candidates seem poised to reach out to the newly empowered “disability vote.” The Republicans have inexplicably surrendered. The most visible GOP moment on disability came not in a powerful victory speech, but when Donald Trump mocked a disabled reporter. He’s since tweeted, “No-one has done more for people with disabilities than me. I have spent many millions of dollars to help out-and am happy to have done so!” Presumably, he’s referring to mandatory compliance with ADA regulations in his buildings and perhaps charitable donations. The Trump campaign did not return requests for clarification.

Call it pandering or just good political sense; politicians who reach out to America’s largest minority will find an electorate ready to finally be heard. Every time one politician says the word “disability,” the silences from other candidates ring out just as loudly. 56 million Americans are paying close attention.


Lead image: Pixabay

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