#CripTheVote: Where Disability Could Have Fit in the Democratic Debate

Until last week, neither Sanders nor Clinton used the word “disability” at most rarely. Then, in her close to the final debate in New Hampshire, Clinton concluded her remarks as follows:

You know, we didn’t get to talk about the continuing struggles that Americans face with racism, with sexism, with discrimination against the LGBT community, with new Americans, with people with disabilities. Yes, we have income inequality, we have other forms of inequality that we need to stand up against and absolutely diminish from our society.

In this passage, her call outs to specific forms of discrimination faced by specific groups serves as a critique of Sanders’ focus on income inequality more generally. She kept it up throughout the weekend before the New Hampshire primary, although has not (to my knowledge – she may have in stump speeches) discussed disability since.

Sanders almost never mentions disability either, but then in his victory speech in New Hampshire, Sanders said:

We must pursue the fight for women’s rights, for gay rights, for disability rights. We must against stronger and stronger opposition protect the right of a woman to control her own body.

The Sanders campaign, I think, recognizes that they need to expand their outreach and, for one moment, disability was in that calculus.

Last week’s debate in Wisconsin had spaces where disability would have fit perfectly, but neither candidate brought it up. That’s fine. They don’t have to reach out to our community (and we don’t have to vote for them!). What’s interesting to me, though, is to see where disability fits within their existing rhetoric.

Here’s the section where a sentence fit for Clinton. It came near the end of her closing statement as she said, reminiscent of her close on the previous debate, “I am not a single- issue candidate, and I do not believe we live in a single-issue country.” She continued:

“Yes, does Wall Street and big financial interests, along with drug companies, insurance companies, big oil, all of it, have too much influence? You’re right.

But if we were to stop that tomorrow, we would still have the indifference, the negligence that we saw in Flint. We would still have racism holding people back. We would still have sexism preventing women from getting equal pay. We would still have LGBT people who get married on Saturday and get fired on Monday. And we would still have governors like Scott Walker and others trying to rip out the heart of the middle class by making it impossible to organize and stand up for better wages and working conditions. So I’m going to keep talking about tearing down all the barriers that stand in the way of Americans fulfilling their potential, because I don’t think our country can live up to its potential unless we give a chance to every single American to live up to theirs.”

Notice how she’s expanded from the previous set of shout-outs to more content. Disability would fit nicely here. After “Monday,” she could add something on inclusion, on discrimination, and disability.  She could name “ableism” as she has sexism and racism. I think my ideal, again within the rhetoric of this paragraph would be, “We would still have sexism preventing women from getting equal pay. We would still have ableism keeping disabled Americans locked up in institutions rather than included in our communities.”

For Sanders, I always have the feeling that his shout outs to specific groups fit a little less well with his political philosophy. He wants to talk about poverty, not the differences between black poverty and white poverty. He wants to talk about jobs, not abled jobs and disabled jobs. He’s a macro-vision candidate. He’s less interested in the diverse identities that make up the Democratic coalition. Instead, his campaign invites a new coalition focused collectively on class-related issues. Still, he’s learned in the last few weeks, to name-check key identity groups, such as here:

SANDERS: Look, we are fighting for every vote that we can get from women, from men, straight, gay, African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans. We are trying to bring America together around an agenda that works for working families and the middle class.

Disability does fit here, as in his NH talk, just as a name-check: “…Latinos, Asian-Americans, Americans with disabilities.” [let’s face it, his campaign would tell him people-first, as it’s safer]

Moreover, his signature issues – jobs and wealth – play directly to major disability issues.

But there’s another space in Sanders’ rhetoric where disability absolutely belongs, not just as a shout-out for political purposes, but if he really wants to solve the problem. Consider this quote:

We need fundamental police reform, clearly, clearly, when we talk about a criminal justice system. I would hope that we could all agree that we are sick and tired of seeing videos on television of unarmed people, often African-Americans, shot by police officers.

As I tweeted at the time:

RE https://twitter.com/Lollardfish/status/697972250339909632

The problem, of course, is that by leaving disability of the police violence conversation, we miss a major component of why and how this happens.

Here are two broader two points are these.

1. There’s lots of room within the current rhetorical structures of the two candidates to talk about disability without demanding they become someone they are not. Neither is talking about it now, and that matters to me (if they want my vote).

2. Disabled Democrats and their allies fit within both the existing and transformative ideas about what are Democratic identities. The candidate and campaign who pursues them would, I think, find a deep well of support and activism within the disability community due to these natural alliances. It’s a winning strategy.

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