More than a quarter-century after the 1990 passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the landscape of U.S. public culture is being reconfigured. Despite the widely acknowledged crisis of liberalism, we now have many state-mandated accommodations that were unimaginable three decades ago, from curb cuts to wheelchair-accessible bathrooms to closed captioning on television. Even so, less visible structural issues such as inadequate educational support, high rates of unemployment, and widespread poverty continue to shape the experience of disability in the United States. In the midst of our hotly contested 2016 presidential campaign, who represents the interests of people with disabilities? Hovering just below twenty percent of the population, this social category comprises the largest minority in America—a demographic fact of political arithmetic that is rarely recognized. In the current neoliberal zeitgeist, public expenditures providing crucial disability support across the life cycle are constantly at risk. Our research on disability worlds asks: how do we support the ongoing work of world-making that aims to ensure that people with disabilities can live as fully as possible in their communities? This is both a cultural and a deeply political question. As The Washington Post queried:
Will the candidates talk about how the unemployment rate among the disabled is more than double that of nondisabled Americans? Or that people with disabilities are far more likely to be victims of violent crime? Will there be any mention of the many disabled people whose struggles are compounded by poverty and inadequate health care?
In the past we have rarely heard politicians speak to these concerns, but in the turbulent 2016 presidential race disability rights groups are finding new ways to get political, responding to the specter of a collapsing social contract. Earlier this year, disability activists launched RespectAbility, a remarkable nonpartisan effort to urge candidates to address disability issues. Additionally, using the reach of social media, the #CripTheVote campaign is creating a national conversation about disability rights with a view to mobilizing voters. And, on a lighter note, what would a political campaign be without a signature T-shirt?
The need for these initiatives erupted when Donald Trump maliciously imitated a disabled New York Times reporter. As the head of the National Organization on Disability commented, “Considering there are fifty-six million Americans living with a disability, you would think a candidate for president would be looking for opportunities to highlight their remarkable contributions to society, not mock them.” In June, Priorities USA, a Democratic political action committee, aired a thirty-second anti-Trump advertisement focusing on the impersonation. It features seventeen-year-old African American Dante Latchman criticizing Trump for his bigotry:
One month later, at the Democratic National Convention, disability issues became central to a presidential campaign for the first time in American history. This was most notable in the speech by longtime activist Anastasia Somoza, a young woman with cerebral palsy and quadriplegia:
Anastasia’s impassioned declaration of the need to recognize people with disabilities generated considerable publicity. It also provoked conversations in the disability blogosphere. One blogger wondered whether Anastasia's performance might be interpreted as “inspiration porn,” while acknowledging that her speech was “genuinely empowering and substantive” nonetheless.
Beyond the affective spectacle featuring disability advocates at the convention, essential policy issues—around jobs, support for caregivers, and integrated housing—are articulated in the Democratic Party’s platform. Moreover, careful attention to inclusive infrastructure was evident at the convention, including ramps, wheelchair checkout, scooter rental, power-chair charging stations, sighted guides, Braille, electronic materials accessible to screen readers, large print, live captions, American Sign Language, Assisted Listening Devices, audio descriptions for convention-hall proceedings, and a texting system for requesting assistance.
The efforts of disability activists in the 2016 elections have rapidly evolved in terms of both political and technological savvy. Hashtags and other forms of online activism are building ties and awareness, encouraging disabled Americans to make their votes count. However, fundamental issues of inclusion still loom. As one columnist noted in her coverage of disability’s presence at both national conventions:
Even if this year the prospect of greater political polarization is inspiring more people with disabilities to vote for Clinton, many will still face challenges getting to the polls—thanks to everything from inaccessible election sites and transportation to the polls to the effects of strict voter ID laws that could have a disproportionate effect on voters with disabilities. And the political party that seems to be pulling ahead on disability rights is still far from inclusive. After all, fewer than 10 percent of Democratic delegates at this year’s convention have a disability. That’s why this year’s prominence at the DNC isn’t just a victory for disability issues, it’s also a call to do better in the future—one that both political parties would do well to heed.
This is no small matter; the United States is infamous for its historically low voter turnout. These new campaigns aim to mobilize the votes of the one in five American adults who have a disability, along with their allies. As African American legal scholar Rabia Belt recently wrote:
People with disabilities are the ticking time bomb of the electorate. An estimated 30 to 35 percent of all voters in the next twenty-five years will need some form of accommodation. Despite the significant and growing population of voters with disabilities, they do not vote in proportion to their numbers. . . . Voters with disabilities [are] “the canaries in the coal mine” . . . people who are an advanced warning of the structural difficulties in voting not just for themselves, but for the system as a whole.
Add to the disabled voters their tens of millions of supporters, caregivers, and family members, and you may have a population large enough to sway any election. Hillary Clinton clearly understands this. On September 21, 2016, she delivered a major campaign speech in Orlando, Florida stressing the need “to build an inclusive economy that welcomes people with disabilities.” A few days later, a determined group of activists amplified this message for Washington lawmakers with a three-day Feel the Power March, rolling from Baltimore to the Capitol, which called attention to the voting power of people with disabilities.
All these efforts to “crip the vote” signal the maturation of a social movement flexing its political muscle. In pushing against the neoliberal erasure of recognition and the erosion of public services, these efforts underscore the words of autism self-advocate Ari Ne’eman: “The disability civil rights movement is by no means over, and the status quo today is just as much in need of change as it was in decades past.”