When I asked Tangikina Moimoi how she felt when Donald Trump made fun of a reporter with a disability, she went completely silent. Tears started to pour down her face as she struggled to conjure the words necessary to express the toxic cocktail of emotions she felt when a man running for the highest office mirrored the lowest common denominator of attack she'd experienced as a person living with a disability. My throat tightened, my eyes started to swell up, and I could hear my cameraman starting to sniffle, struggling to keep his own emotion from muffling the sound of our interview.
I was mad as hell. That the most visible and widely covered man in American politics could publicly display such an insensitive reaction to a person with a disability wasn’t just shocking, it was infuriating. My frustration was outweighed with the rage boiling inside of me as I realized the media had failed to broadcast responses from those like Moimoi.
When Donald Trump insulted women, news organizations conducted focus group after focus group of women. When Trump offended Mexicans, they sought to hear from Latinos. Similarly, we heard from African Americans when Trump took a discomforting amount of time to disavow the KKK.
Now, the candidate has publicly mocked reporters with disabilities at least twice: first Charles Krauthammer in June 2015 for being "a guy that can't buy a pair of pants" because he’s a paraplegic, and then a few months later, grossly mocking the mannerisms of New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski, who has a chronic condition. But pundits simply assessed the damage of this revolting depiction of disability, omitting one glaring detail: Letting a person living with a disability speak. The oversight is sadly in line with the general dearth of people with disabilities in mass media.
It's not like the ignorance around disabilities plays on party lines. Republican President George H.W. Bush passed the most significant law for this community, the Americans With Disabilities Act, in 1990. And even when Hillary Clinton’s campaign had the opportunity to capitalize on Trump’s disrespect, her Super PAC spent $20 million on an advertisement that never actually featured the voice of a person living with a disability. It only featured the parents of a child living with a disability, rather than letting the child speak for herself.
Why do we let other identity groups speak for themselves, but not people living with a disability?
Scholar and disability advocate Victor Pineda, the senior research fellow at the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, believes the lack of media attention is due to the invisibility of individuals living with a disability. He says that although people living with a disability make up nearly one in five Americans, their voices rarely make it to the mainstream.
"We are visible if you’re willing to look," he told Vox. "We represent every constituency group. We are old, we are young, we are black, white, Hispanic, Asian, we are men, women, transgender. We are part of every community, and what we want is equal opportunity to contribute our talents."
Because the voices of people with a disability are so underrepresented, the media doesn’t press candidates on issues of ability, creating a real lack of accountability to respond to the very problems that make the community invisible to begin with.
"You don’t hear presidential candidates speaking about people with a disability as much as they should," Jose Pena, a volunteer for Get Out the Vote, said to Vox at the Disability Network conference last week. "Sometimes we are thrown on the back burner when our issues should be front and center."
Essential issues like housing, employment, transportation, and health care are all pressing for a community that struggles to get access to even the most basic services. And that lack of access is a barrier to being able to vote.
"Sometimes the voter turnout is low because … when they are dealing with Social Security, or getting income when they can eat, voting won’t be that main priority," Pena said. "They’d rather address those pressing issues."
For those who can prioritize voting, many face hurdles others take for granted, like the fact that a lot of polling stations still aren’t accessible.
But whichever candidate taps into this voting bloc would be smart to do so. People with disabilities are one of the fastest growing minority groups in the country and could become a powerful voting bloc for any party. They have a specific set of demands and would stand by a candidate willing to listen to them. "Some candidates do more than others for people with disabilities, but they can say all they want — what we really want is action," Pena said.
So, politicians, the ball is your court. There are more than 50 million votes up for grabs, will you listen to your constituents when they speak?