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Politicians are ignoring Americans with disabilities

The disabled are a major political constituency, but candidates in both parties aren’t doing enough to court their votes

November 10, 2015 2:00AM ET

There’s no reason to think that Donald Trump knows or would care that his book title, “Crippled America,” is deeply offensive to millions of Americans with disabilities. “Crippled” is a slur that has long been used to denigrate people with disabilities, especially with physical disabilities, and to mark them as weak, useless and unwanted. Trump might as well as used the R-word to describe an America that he sees as falling apart or picked some other stigmatizing insult. While “crip” and “cripple” are being reclaimed by activists, that’s no excuse for Trump to use it.

It would be nice to think that at least one candidate in the Fox Business Network debate tonight might call Trump out on his language, but I don’t expect anyone on the stage to champion the rights of disabled Americans. Although there are at least 56 million Americans who have disabilities, living in every part of the country and holding every conceivable political position, no presidential candidate so far this cycle has done anything but make the most cursory of overtures to this untapped, ignored constituency.

Every special interest group wants more attention from politicians, but the disabled are not a clearly defined segment of the American population. Rather, disability is a natural part of the human experience that ultimately confronts everyone. No one is more than one degree of separation away from disability. Only those unlucky enough to die suddenly might avoid disability. This universality makes addressing the needs of disabled Americans more than just a special interest issue.

At the same time, although people who identify as disabled are evenly spread across the American political spectrum, there are certain issues — employment and education opportunities, access to health care, discrimination — that unite them. Our best data demonstrate that despite accessibility obstacles, disabled individuals are highly motivated to vote and will vote for candidates who understand these issues. From the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 to the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, disability legislation has an unparalleled history of bipartisan support.

So here we have a huge group of Americans and a set of issues that politicians from either political party might address. And yet disability and the needs of disabled American voters have played almost no role in the election. What’s going on?

A poll sponsored in 2013 by United Cerebral Palsy found that 30 percent of disabled likely voters surveyed identified as Democrats, 23 percent as Republicans and 30 percent as independents. They know their issues and will vote for candidates who respect them. Voting-age Americans with disabilities are a population of 34 million up for grabs.

Academic research confirms this poll’s findings. In 2000, John Gastil, now at Pennsylvania State University, looked at disabled voters in New Mexico. He found that while there were distinct liberal and conservative camps, disability informs voting decisions across the board. Some come to resent government bureaucracy, while others strongly endorse a better safety net. And in 2013, Lisa Schur and Meera Adya published an article on political participation by people with disabilities, “Sidelined or Mainstreamed?” They determined that people with disabilities often do not perceive government officials as responsive and feel that they lack clout in the political system.

What will it take for a candidate to realize that it might be worth paying attention to 56 million Americans and their families?

They’re right, at least when it comes to the current crop of presidential candidates. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton has just a brief overview of disability rights issues on her website, and Bernie Sanders will sometimes mention disabled Americans when talking about marginalized groups. Both said nice things about the Americans With Disabilities Act on its 25th anniversary in July. But in the first Democratic presidential debate, the only mention of disability occurred when Sanders responded to a question about recent mass shootings by talking about mental health. Because people with psychiatric disabilities are vastly more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it, many disability rights experts find the conflation of disability with gun violence dangerous.

On the Republican side, Jeb Bush, a son of the president who signed the act into law, has periodically touted his strong record on disability issues but doesn’t campaign on it. Trump, meanwhile, beyond his offensive book title, has directly stigmatized Americans with disabilities with his dangerous comments about the fictitious link between vaccines and autism and his tendency to blame mass shootings on mental illness rather than an overabundance of guns.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker could have been an exception. According to Jennifer Lazlo Mizrahi, the CEO and president of RespectAbility, a nonprofit focused on empowering people with disabilities, Wisconsin has done very well on employment for people with disabilities. But Walker didn’t talk about this record as a Republican presidential candidate, and now he’s gone from the race.

Mizrahi says that there’s a perception problem among Washington elites who think that people with disabilities are “a voting bloc that belongs to one party. Democrats take the group for granted, and Republicans don’t reach out.” She argues that the desire for opportunity and equality in jobs and education is fundamentally nonpartisan.

She’s certainly right, but in a primary context, the nonpartisan nature of disability rights issues may be beside the point. It’s enough to say that in each party, there are likely primary voters who might be persuaded by outreach on disability issues.

Me, for example. I’m the father of a boy with Down syndrome. At some point in the next year, competing candidates for the nomination in the party I generally support are going to want my vote in a primary. Like the vast majority of Americans, my vote in the general election is almost certainly determined by party loyalty, but my primary vote is up for grabs. Moreover, I’m savvy enough to know that the differences among the candidates in a party are likely to be subtle. Any candidate who talks adeptly about disability rights has a good chance of getting my vote.

Don’t believe me? There was one recent presidential campaign that paid more attention to disability than any other: Barack Obama’s first run in 2008, in which he devoted a policy advisory committee to the issue. Seth Harris, a co-chair of the Obama disability policy committee, told me that it was part of Obama’s plan to reach out to every possible community in building momentum for his run. Harris took particular pride in fostering youth leaders on the committee, many of whom subsequently went on to careers in the Obama administration.

By contrast, not a single 2016 presidential candidate has a disability policy committee. Across the country, voters like me — some with disabilities, others drawn into the disability community through our children, parents or other loved ones — are just waiting for a sign that someone is willing to invest some time and energy in our concerns. What will it take for a candidate to realize that it might be worth paying attention to 56 million Americans and their families?

David M. Perry writes on language and power at How Did We Get Into This Mess? He is a history professor at Dominican University

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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