This has been a contentious, divisive election season. Yet, being queer and disabled, I’m hopeful despite the muck. Though campaigns (at least in the Democratic Party) have recognized the LGBT community as a political constituency for some time, the disability community has been largely unnoticed. This election cycle, the disability community is finally getting on the radar.
Through the social media campaign #CripTheVote and other get-out-the-vote efforts, the disability community has become a part of the cultural conversation as it hasn’t been before. Recently, on Sept. 21 in Orlando, Fla., Hillary Clinton became the first presidential candidate to deliver a speech pitched to the disability community.
In a tight race, Clinton and Donald Trump are seeking the votes of a community that is increasingly becoming a voting bloc to be reckoned with: the one-in-five Americans who, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, have disabilities, their families, friends and allies. Some three to five million people identify as queer and disabled.
Previously, presidential campaigns have occasionally referenced disability. In 1996, the late actor Christopher Reeve, who had a spinal cord injury, spoke at the Democratic National Convention, and Bob Dole, the Republican presidential candidate and World War II veteran, spoke openly about his war injury.
But this election, it’s different. Crip the Vote has been tweeting questions and responding on Twitter during the presidential debates. Three disability groups, The Association of People with Disabilities, National Council on Independent Living and REV UP campaign, sent the candidates a detailed questionnaire about their policies on disability issues. Clinton and Trump responded to the survey.
Clinton’s speech to the disability community in Orlando wasn’t the usual batch of platitudes. She spoke of the discrimination, inaccessibility and poverty so many people with disabilities live with daily. Disability is an issue that “really gets to the heart of who we are as Americans,” she said.
Not all disabilities are visible, Clinton said. But, “If you don’t know you know someone with a disability, I promise you, you do,” she added, “But their disability is just one part of who they are.”
Clinton’s campaign has plans aimed at making colleges more accessible to disabled students, helping people who have Alzheimer’s disease and autism. The campaign has released an ad for Clinton in American Sign Language and an ad featuring disability rights advocate Anastasia Somoza. People with disabilities were mentioned 35 times in 19 section of the Democratic Party platform, former Congressman Tony Coelho, who has epilepsy, told the Washington Post.
Trump’s disability policy is far less developed than Clinton’s. And his recent comments on people with disabilities are on par with his anti-queer, misogynistic, anti-immigration and sexist views. Behind the scenes, he called Oscar-winning deaf actress Marlee Matlin “retarded” when she was on his reality TV show “The Apprentice,” according to recent news reports. The term “retarded” is a slur against people with intellectual disabilities. Matlin, known for her role on the “The L Word” isn’t intellectually disabled. “It’s not about insults or taking each other down,” Matlin wrote in a statement on Twitter, “As a person who is Deaf, as a woman, as a mom, as a wife, as an actor, I have a voice. And I’m using that voice to make myself heard…and vote.”
Trump’s mockery of a New York Times reporter with a disability is well known. Trump has denied dissing the reporter, and boasted that he spent “millions of dollars” to make his buildings disability accessible. (He’s legally required to ensure that his buildings are accessible to disabled people.)
If you’re able-bodied, accessibility may seem like an abstract concept. If you’re disabled, it’s all too real. In 2012, I went to my polling place to vote. After I said I needed assistance because I’m visually impaired, a man working at the polls said to me, “if you read to me what’s on the ballot, I’ll help you vote.” Eventually, this got ironed out. But, for a moment, I wondered if I’d be able to vote.
CripTheVote is a nonpartisan campaign to engage voters and politicians in a discussion of disability issues, and to get disabled people out to vote.
You might think that there’s little connection between CripTheVote and the queer community, but you’d be wrong. Disabled people in our community have spouses, friends and colleagues. Now that we can legally marry, some of our children will have disabilities.
“The LGBT community has shown what targeted organizing can accomplish,” Alice Wong, a CripTheVote co-founder, e-mailed me. “The LGBT community is a great example of how to build coalitions.”
The disability community has a higher rate of poverty than the queer community, Ted Jackson, a 47-year-old gay man with a neurological disability, told me in a phone interview. “But the LGBT community didn’t start from a place of wealth,” added Jackson, the former community organizing director of the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers.
“Yet, if you get enough $3 donations, they’ll add up to a million dollars,” Jackson, currently, director of disability community engagement with the Democratic National Committee, said.
You don’t have to be disabled to support #CripTheVote. Check it out. Let’s all join the conversation.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.