Thursday, September 17, 2015

Disability Politics

"Vote" button in red, white, and blue, with a wheelchair symbol figure casting a vote
I am working on some kind of blog post or article on evaluating election candidates from a disability policy perspective. I’m not ready yet to come out with a definitive list of questions we can pose to candidates, but I have a few preliminary thoughts:

- One of the biggest barriers for the disability community in mainstream politics may be that most of us find it hard to connect our lived experience of disability with either concrete policies or political philosophy. It's second nature for disability activists, but most of us aren't activists. Most disabled people just live their lives and deal with barriers and frustrations in very immediate, personal terms. We need to get into the habit of asking ourselves what kinds of public policies would improve our lives as disabled people. We need to practice asking ourselves, and each other, so we become better equipped to ask the people who want our votes.

- Disability issues should rank higher on the priority lists of candidates, political commentators, and the voting public. However, I don’t think disability will ever rank among the most important and widely discussed issues in American politics. I’m not even sure it makes sense for us to argue that disability should be a top concern.

- I do think it's realistic and completely appropriate for the disability community to someday be a more widely recognized constituency than we are now. Candidates should care about connecting with us and developing distinctive policies that address our needs and concerns … not because they matter much to the country as a whole, but because we are a bona-fide “special interest group” worth courting. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being identified this way. Our concerns are more important than people realize, but they are mainly our concerns, mostly affecting disabled people and their families. Disability issues don't have much relevance for everyone else. That doesn’t mean they are unimportant.

- Most campaigns for national office eventually get around to issuing disability-related policies and positions. Most include “People with Disabilities” on their websites, usually on a drop-down menu of issues or voter groups. Some campaigns take longer to do this than others. Some do it better than others. The real problem is that what they say tends to be generic and non-specific, more about using the right code words and endorsing the usual disability activist themes than about suggesting actual policies. I may feel differently by November 2016, but right now I would much rather hear appalling stuff about lazy cheaters on Disability from someone like Rand Paul, than entirely predictable, or maybe patronizing fluff from a candidate I would otherwise probably vote for. There are legitimate differences of opinion on disability issues. It is better for all of us to discuss them openly and "have it out" than to stick only with candidates who use the right words and an encouraging tone, but have nothing to say.

- Our top priority should be to force candidates to explain how their political philosophies would translate into different approaches to disability policy. If Donald Trump’a positions on disability issues turn out to be not much different than Hillary Clinton’s, or Marco Rubuo’s than Bernie Sanders' then something is wrong. If, on the other hand, we can easily identify which of two unlabeled disability statements is Trump’s and which is Clinton’s, then we will have made some progress, no matter what the policies actually say.

- Despite what I said about disability being a “special interest,” we should connect the dots for voters and candidates between disability issues and the more widely discussed topics that dominate election campaigns. Disability issues connect naturally and in illuminating ways with entitlements, poverty and inequality, employment, healthcare, transportation, education … not to mention infrastructure, law enforcement, and civil rights. Of course, it’s been said a thousand times, but it’s worth repeating that many key disability issues are also aging issues, which demographics suggest should be a much bigger deal in politics as it is.

There will be more about all this from me, I am sure.