The Political Ad That Finally Got Disability (More) Right

Seven seconds into the political ad, Dante Latchman, a 17-year-old person of color with a disability, crosses his arms to show his inked forearms. I did a little fist-pump, the first time I saw it. Here, at last, was what I’ve been looking for when it comes to disability, representation, and politics — a non-white disabled person speaking for themselves, and messaging that didn’t focus on parents.

The ad — called “Dante” — is one of the latest pieces out from Priorities USA, the largest pro-Clinton super PAC. It features Latchman talking directly to the camera about his own history, first, and then his criticisms of Donald Trump. He had cancer as an infant on his spinal column and presents himself as a fighter. He’s got “Cancer Survivor” tattooed on his forearms and speaks confidently and powerfully. Then we see Donald Trump, flailing his arms and doing a nasal voice as he makes fun of a disabled reporter for The New York Times. Latchman is not amused.

The ad is a carefully crafted piece of political rhetoric, so of course it doesn’t achieve some platonic ideal of perfect representation; still, I was amazed to see this exquisitely intersectional approach to making a political argument. As I covered for The Establishment last March, I’m aggressively a proponent for the disability rights community becoming more political, and have been cheering movements like #CripTheVote and the program by RespectAbility that sent reporters to campaign events in Iowa and New Hampshire to ask questions about disability. The Clinton campaign, in turn, has fully embraced disability as one of their issues, and now this super PAC ally has made it a centerpiece of their early general campaign ads.

“Dante” is, in fact, their second ad highlighting Trump’s offensive mockery. Their first was “Grace,” which was part of a $20 million ad buy blanketing the swing states. “Grace,” as I described for The Atlantic, featured two white well-off parents talking first about their daughter, Grace, a young girl with spina bifida, and how wonderful she is. Then they pivoted to Trump. It’s a strong ad, aimed straight at white, moderate, swing voters (perhaps who identify as Christian), but it also trades heavily on disability stereotypes. When I reached out to members of the disability community, they critiqued “Grace” for emphasizing the disabled child’s innate goodness, letting the parents speak for the disabled individual, and once again, highlighting only a white family.

I spoke to Justin Barasky, communications director for Priorities USA, about the ad campaign. He didn’t want to single out disability as a community Trump has been especially offensive toward, choosing instead to point out that the candidate has also insulted Muslims, Mexicans, women, and more. Each negative ad highlights a specific set of behaviors to make the case that Trump is uniquely unsuited, by temperament and action, to be president. “Dante,” he told me, was cut about the same time as “Grace,” and reflects a genuine attempt to reach diverse communities offended by Trump’s behavior. The Trump campaign did not promptly return requests for comment.

I showed “Dante” to Vilissa Thompson, a disabled African-American woman who founded Ramp Your Voice and also started the #DisabilityTooWhite hashtag on Twitter, a conversation around the ever-white imagery surrounding disability. She was, honestly, less thrilled than I expected, given that “Dante” directly responded to so many of the criticisms of “Grace.” She said that she “had some qualms about exploiting youth — with or without disabilities — to make political ads aimed at adults.” She would prefer to see him speak about the many issues confronting youth today. Still, she admitted, “To see Dante, a disabled teen of color, speak about his political beliefs regarding Trump was very empowering because I remember being very opinionated as a teen about politics when I was his age.”

Despite its limitations — perhaps limitations made necessary by its genre as a 30-second ad — each step forward when it comes to disability and politics, or disability and the media, will enable us to raise the bar even higher. We’ve got such a long way to go, given the paucity of positive, diverse images of disability, so I’m pretty happy to see a high-profile organization like Priorities USA moving us forward. It cements disability as a major issue in the 2016 presidential campaign and, hopefully, beyond.

Let’s keep raising the bar.

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