For months, a small group of activists have been fighting to get presidential candidates and their parties to address disability rights issues on the campaign trail. But their demands have been largely ignored by debate moderators, political commentators, and party leaders. The most prominent mention of their plight was instead seen through Republican candidate Donald Trump’s mockery of a reporter with a disability.
Until this week.
According to advocates, the Democratic National Convention’s focus on disability issues has already gone far beyond any efforts at past political conventions. With subtle moves to foster a sense of inclusion for people with disabilities — like selecting a blind man to sing the national anthem, or having a podium that automatically lowered when a man with dwarfism approached it — to more explicit discussion of issues affecting them, the DNC has effortlessly blended disability rights throughout.
“It’s weaving us throughout the platform, recognizing that we are a vital part of society and that we cannot be separated out from issues like employment and housing,” wrote disability rights advocate S.E. Smith in a Tuesday Bustle editorial.
The first day of the convention featured Anastasia Somoza, a disability rights activist with cerebral palsy who contrasted Hillary Clinton’s work on disability rights with Trump’s harmful mockery.
“Donald Trump doesn’t see me, he doesn’t hear me, and he definitely doesn’t think for me,” Somoza said, echoed by overwhelming applause.
And Tuesday, the 26th anniversary of the Americans with Disability Act, shone an even brighter light on disability issues. Former Sen. Tom Harkin, who championed the ADA in Congress, gave a speech on the law’s successes and shortcomings.
“When, 26 years later, 70 percent of adults with disabilities in America aren’t in the workforce, it’s time to take action,” he said. “When employers are still allowed to pay people with disabilities below the minimum wage, it’s time to change the law.”
“We still have a way to go before we can build a truly inclusive America,” Harkin said, and went on to teach his audience how to say “America” in sign language.
Disabled Voters Feeling Ignored By Candidates Take Election Into Own HandsHealth by CREDIT: AP Photo, Gerald Herbert Unemployment. Incarceration rates. Access to education. Medicare coverage…thinkprogress.orgThe number of speeches centered on disability rights — and given by people with disabilities — is a stark contrast to last week’s Republican convention in Cleveland, where disability wasn’t mentioned once.
The entire DNC environment seems to reflect the party’s commitment to disability rights. Ronnie Polaneczky, a Philly.com columnist who focuses on disability issues, said the week-long Philadelphia event is the most accessible convention the DNC has ever produced. With 400 delegates with disabilities at the convention — 35 percent more than attended in 2012 — this is simply common sense.
Power-chair charging stations, live-captioned translations for the hearing impaired, text-alert systems for assistance requests, guide-dog relief areas — the variety of option for visitors with disabilities is extensive. Clinton campaign staffers are even passing out buttons shouting “Stronger Together” in Braille.
— Doug Foote (@FooteSteppes) July 25, 2016
“The DNC Committee is kicking aside obstacles that once kept people with disabilities from participating in an event that is otherwise open to all,” Polaneczky writes.
Disability rights activists, who began an online movement to “#CripTheVote” at the beginning of the year, shared their delight in the DNC’s focus on Twitter, the platform where their fight ultimately began.
— Peter Flom (@peterflom) July 27, 2016
— Andrew Pulrang (@AndrewPulrang) July 26, 2016
However, this recognition is just the start of a broader movement for many.
— David M. Perry (@Lollardfish) July 24, 2016
It's great that the DNC speakers are calling out Trump for disabled mocking, but it's time our actual issues are discussed. #cripthevote
— Ariella Barker (@barker_ariella) July 26, 2016
But the overall reaction came as a virtual sigh of relief.
“For me, this is huge,” Smith writes in the final paragraph. “It validates the work disability rights activists have been engaged in for decades, and it lays the groundwork for a potentially even more inclusive platform in 2020.”