A vintage looking photo, Anastasia Somoza, disability rights advocate and human rights defender meets Hillary Clinton

Disability Rights at the DNC – Why Now?

The disabled community is the world’s largest minority. So it’s worth taking a look at the Democratic National Convention’s inclusion or lack thereof of disabled folks and our issues.

As a woman with a disability, I was excited to hear speeches from Anastasia Somoza, who spoke of her positive relationship with Hillary Clinton over the years; former Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, who gave an ASL lesson; and from others with disabilities at the Democratic National Convention (some in better time slots than that given to the current NYC mayor). The DNC platform mentions disability rights 35 times in 19 separate sections, and four hundred delegates with disabilities attended the convention, which the Philadelphia Daily News reported as more than a thirty-five percent increase since 2012. Finally, disability was getting some coverage.

My excitement gave way to skepticism. I tend to question any politician’s true motives when it comes to my issues. Although, at the end of the day, their motives shouldn’t matter to me. Rather, what is most important is whether my marginalized group gets a platform on which to speak, and the chance to discuss our issues with our own voices.

But this current election cycle has been unusual with regard to disability rights, in part because up until the DNC, the only coverage I had seen for disability rights were articles that discussed how disability rights were hardly mentioned. A member of the Sanders campaign knocked on my door a few weeks before the New York (my state’s) primary and asked if I had any questions. “What has Sanders said on disability rights?” I received a vague answer and was told to check the website. I guess the canvasser hadn’t expected my question (although I use a wheelchair, so it wasn’t like this was coming out of left field).

No one from the Clinton campaign had stopped in my neighborhood, and so I took to Google to get her stance. There was some mention of disability rights on her campaign website, but nothing particularly specific. I later read an article stating that Clinton has opposed the subminimum wage, which is harmful to the disabled community. She also discussed policies pertaining to autism. So there was that. But as of April, neither candidate had expressly and routinely mentioned disability rights in their stump speeches.

I had to, as in previous elections, judge candidates by their platforms and how a person with a disability could potentially fit into those platforms. Expand Social Security? People with disabilities could benefit from that. Lower prescription drug prices and universal healthcare? That would most certainly benefit people with disabilities. Affordable housing could also help people with disabilities, provided that the housing would be accessible (no mention of whether that would be the case, though). Well, that primary vote certainly required some pondering.

But what happened between April and the DNC to spark such interest in disability rights?

Some have argued that Trump’s mocking of a reporter with a disability spurred this inclusion among the DNC platform, but this occurred months ago. Surely this topic would have received more attention sooner if Trump’s antics were the catalyst. There had been speculation about whether Trump could inadvertently end the bipartisan view of disability rights about a month before each major political convention, but little else.

There’s also the Crip the Vote movement. It could be that Democrats have finally realized that reaching out to voters with disabilities may boost their chances of winning. The number of delegates with disabilities also suggests a greater disabled presence in politics. But there are still many inaccessible polling places in the D.C. area and throughout the country. As of 2014, people with disabilities still have difficulty voting. And for those who say that the absentee ballot is the best solution, NPR reported that over a quarter of a million absentee ballots were rejected in the 2012 election. These create logistical problems (unless the Dems are planning to make all voting places accessible by November). So I’m not entirely convinced of “the Democrats are pandering to the disabled because they need the votes” theory.

And Clinton certainly didn’t borrow her stance from Bernie’s platform. As mentioned above, any discussion of disability from the Sanders camp had to be imagined as falling under another one of his platform issues.

Which isn’t to take anything away from the speakers with disabilities. People with disabilities want to speak for themselves, and they were finally given that opportunity at the DNC. They rocked it, and said some much-needed things.

During the remainder of the DNC, numerous speeches emphasized Clinton’s career accomplishments, her foreign policy experience, and how she is one of the most qualified people in this country for the job (which she is). But also highlighted were her efforts early in her career to fight for inclusive education for children with disabilities, a fact that I knew little about, but learned a great deal more about during this convention.

In fact, I wish I’d known it sooner, say in 2008. I respect those who fought for inclusive education before the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and before the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (which occurred under Bill Clinton’s presidency in 1997). Now I have some evidence that Hillary may actually fight for me.

But this is from the perspective of a voter with a disability who may or may not be able to physically vote come this November (depending on my voting place’s accessibility). The able-bodied audience may instead see Clinton through a more compassionate lens than before (one of the goals of the DNC was to make Hillary seem more sympathetic, or, more human, to voters). She fought for the disadvantaged, just as she said she would in all of her campaign speeches. And I guess nothing says disadvantaged to the able-bodied like a child with a disability who just wants to go to school.

I have to wonder whether Clinton, and other Democrats, will continue to support disability rights and inclusion following this election cycle. Or has my demographic become a convention talking point to humanize a candidate? I want to feel included, but I worry that I may feel used.

Header image via CNN.

Val was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York (the part that gets cut off of tourist maps), and blogs about life with paralysis and wheelchair-accessible bakeries. In the fall, she will start at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she will study Higher Education with a focus on college access for students with disabilities, in addition to inclusive education. She recently graduated from the University of Cambridge, where she researched early medieval definitions and perceptions of disability, and from Harvard College, where she wrote her senior thesis on medieval tournaments and claimed it wasn’t an excuse to watch “A Knight’s Tale” multiple times.

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