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Disability rights took the spotlight at the Democratic convention this year

Anastasia Somoza, a disability rights advocate, speaks on the first day of the Democratic National Convention. She is sitting in a wheelchair.
Anastasia Somoza, a disability rights advocate, speaks on the first day of the Democratic National Convention.
Paul Morigi/Getty

People with disabilities are used to feeling like a second-class minority group. In American politics, when disability is mentioned at all, it’s too often in the context of trite inspiration porn or offensive and inaccurate myths about people faking problems to unfairly access public benefits. Rarely do disabled Americans hear meaningful discussion of the issues that impact our lives.

That’s what makes this year’s Democratic National Convention so surprising. The first two nights of the convention included an unusual level of disability-rights content. Both evenings have included prominent remarks from disabled speakers with decades-long relationships with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Yesterday's session took place during the 26th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Former US Sen. Tom Harkin, one of the original co-sponsors of the ADA, spoke early in the day’s schedule about that landmark event. He took the opportunity to teach the assembled delegates how to say America in sign language — then praised Hillary’s support for ending an exemption that allowed companies to pay some disabled workers less than the minimum wage, and for passing legislation to promote community living supports.

Disability rights has long been a passionate cause of Sen. Harkin and a few other elected officials with a personal connection to the community. What’s unusual about this year’s convention was the degree to which disability has played a major role in the primetime symbolism used by the party to make their case to the American people.

Some of this may reflect a longstanding personal interest in the topic by the candidate. As Bill Clinton mentioned in his remarks last night, Hillary Clinton began her law career advocating for children with disabilities with the Children’s Defense Fund before the passage of Public Law 94-132, which required public schools to accept children with disabilities. Her campaign has issued impressively detailed policy plans regarding autismsubstance abuseAlzheimer’s, and HIV/AIDS, among other topics.

But it also reflects some important changing dynamics in America’s disability politics.

The interests of people with disabilities themselves have rarely been the subject of American politics

In previous election cycles, disability has been included mainly to tell a story designed to appeal to the non-disabled. Activists have long expressed frustration that disability — viewed within the community as a civil rights issue — has usually been presented as a source of human interest stories designed to evoke pity.

Christopher Reeve’s convention speech is a notorious case. Writing in her memoir Too Late to Die Young, Harriet McBryde-Johnson, a disabled attorney, author, and delegate at the 1996 Democratic convention, described her disappointment in the disabled actor’s remarks, which were praised in the general press but panned by most disability-rights commentators for casting disability as mainly an issue of medical research. McBryde-Johnson captured the disconnect:

On the giant TV screen in the rafters, there's a woman in a wheelchair with both arms crossed over her chest, scowling. Quick cut to a nondisabled white woman, tears streaming across a smiling face, backlit to highlight her moment of inspiration. The lights pick out a variety of delegates. White, black, old, young, male, female. Everything but crips …

… the speech ends and the lights come on. Emotion has run through the vast space, in one of those communal experiences that touches each individual and transforms the group as a whole. But as Reeve and the crowd have enjoyed their communion, I have been placed outside the circle. The force that has been let loose in the hall redefines me as it defines Reeve, as a disability object, presumably tragic but brave, someone to gawk at, someone to make them grateful that they are not like us.

McBryde-Johnson’s criticism reflects a longstanding aspiration among the disabled to be seen as a minority group on par with black and Latino voters, Jews and Muslims, and the LGBTQ community, rather than as a public health problem. Seen in that light, convention remarks like those of Dynah Haubert, a disabled staff attorney at Disability Rights Pennsylvania, carry special resonance. Speaking among representatives of other minority groups on Monday, Haubert proclaimed that "disability is not a problem to be cured, but part of our identity and diversity."

Actor Christopher Reeve, speaking at the 2000 Democratic National Convention
Christopher Reeve’s speech at the 1996 Democratic National Convention was not well received by disability-rights advocates
New York Daily News Archive / Contributor

In prior cycles, politicians rarely went beyond generic statements supporting greater awareness or increased funding of research. With such a low bar, there wasn't much of a pathway for campaigns to distinguish themselves.

Now we're seeing a willingness to get down to specific proposals, even controversial proposals. This is happening in both parties. Witness the GOP platform’s call for including businesses owned by people with disabilities in the federal government’s minority-owned business contract preference program.

Or witness the battle that's played out in Congress this year between competing Democratic and Republican visions for mental health reform. Democrats have by and large been arguing to protect the privacy rights of people with psychiatric disabilities under HIPAA and expand voluntary mental health supports; Republican leaders have argued for rolling back HIPAA and expanding more coercive court-ordered treatment models. Whatever side you’re on, it’s satisfying to see that the parties are finally starting to articulate exactly what they believe in when it comes to disability policy.

The disability community has matured politically

Americans with disabilities want to be recognized as an interest group worth pandering to — not as a source of inspiration or pity for the general public. Many believe that’s finally happening this year.

Even during the primaries, candidates on both sides of the aisle had begun to make commitments. When Jeb Bush rolled out his campaign, he highlighted the work he had done as governor to expand services to Floridians with developmental disabilities. John Kasich made similar remarks on the campaign trail.

In the Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton made an early splash with a detailed plan for policies relevant to autism: It included commitments to expand funding for integrated employment opportunities as well as investments in services for autistic adults. Later, on the campaign trail, she responded to a question from an autistic lawyer in Wisconsin by committing to change federal labor law to extend minimum-wage protections to all disabled workers. She went on to endorse the Disability Integration Act, legislation designed to create an enforceable right for community-based supports. In both instances, Sen. Sanders quickly followed suit.

Interestingly, both the Democratic and Republican party platforms call for eliminating sub-minimum wage compensation to disabled workers (somewhat ironically so for the GOP, given that the party doesn’t support a federal minimum wage). And when an early draft of the Democratic platform was released without mention of the need for community-based services for the disabled, vocal lobbying by activists convinced the party to include language addressing their concerns.

A large group that’s politically up for grabs — in theory

Behind this growing interest is a fundamental political reality. Nearly one in five Americans possess a disability of some kind. While many are disconnected from disability politics, a substantial minority of disabled Americans and their family members consider disability issues a major factor in their voting decisions. (At the Democratic convention itself, the number of disabled delegates is up 35 percent, relative to the 2012 convention.)

Polling of the community suggests disabled voters are distributed through both political parties at about the same rate as the general population. Meaning that they remain up for grabs for either party. Disability issues can meaningfully influence voting behavior. In a 2013 poll, 87 percent of voters with disabilities reported they would consider voting against a candidate they otherwise supported if that candidate favored cutting disability services. Forty-five percent indicated such a stance would definitely lose their vote.

In 2016, the Democrats have an opportunity to dominate the disability vote — and they know it

There’s another reason why disability issues are getting greater representation at the convention. The Democratic Party in the 21st century has bet big on health care — if you want the federal government to play a role in expanding access and improving benefits, most of the policy proposals you’ll like will be on one side of the aisle.

Post-ACA, the percentage of Americans without health insurance is rapidly dropping. When President Obama came into office, the critical issue highlighted by health reform proponents was the lack of affordable coverage for a population of mostly non-disabled adults. Now that the ACA has created a pathway to universal insurance coverage, focus is starting to shift to what that insurance will pay for — an issue that’s most relevant for people with disabilities and those with chronic illness. At this point, if you want to do meaningful health policy, you have to focus on people with disabilities.

This isn't only relevant for future policymaking. When the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, political compromise necessitated excluding health insurance from its nondiscrimination protections. The passage of the Affordable Care Act finally changed that, ending discrimination against Americans with disabilities and other pre-existing conditions on the insurance market.

While Republicans have a significant disability policy record of their own (the ADA itself was signed by George H.W. Bush), their party’s strenuous efforts to repeal the ACA and its ban on pre-existing-condition discrimination makes it difficult for them to reach out to the disability vote. As long as repealing the ACA remains a top priority for the GOP, the Democrats will have an easier case to make to Americans with disabilities. With that in mind, it’s not so surprising that they’ve chosen to boost the profile given to disability at this year’s convention.

Ari Ne’eman is the president and co-founder of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, an advocacy organization run by and for autistic adults seeking to increase the representation of autistic people across society. He has also served on the National Council on Disability, a federal agency that advises Congress and the president on disability policy issues.

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