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2016 is the year disability rights broke through in national politics

Anastasia Somoza, an international disability rights advocate, arrives onstage to deliver remarks on the first day of the Democratic National Convention.
Anastasia Somoza, an international disability rights advocate, arrives onstage to deliver remarks on the first day of the Democratic National Convention.
Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

The second night of the Democratic National Convention was also the 26th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act. It was, further, the day of a horrifying anti-disabled hate crime in Japan, where a former employee of a caregiving facility who had expressed support for euthanizing the disabled without their consent carried through on that idea by returning to his employer and stabbing 19 people to death. It was the worst mass killing in Japan since World War II.

This is the uneasy state of disability rights in the world today. Yes, a quarter-century ago politicians of both parties came together to guarantee disabled Americans protection against discrimination, and basic physical access to public life. But we still live in a world where many people consider disability a fate worse than death, and are all too willing to murder disabled people (and people on the autism spectrum, like me) for being an inconvenience.

In that context, the consistent emphasis placed on disability rights at the Democratic convention was immensely encouraging. It began Monday night with the remarks of Anastasia Somoza, a longtime disability rights activist who addressed the convention from her wheelchair.

Somoza got a major platform to argue for the key principle of disability rights: that the disabled don't need pity; they need services and fair treatment. "In a country where 56 million Americans with disabilities so often feel invisible, Hillary Clinton sees me," Somoza told the audience. 'She sees me as a strong woman, a young professional, a hard worker, and the proud daughter of immigrants. … I am confident that as our president Hillary will do everything in her power to promote the rights, empowerment, and humanity of all Americans."

The specific language here is important. Somoza’s praise for Clinton isn’t that Clinton feels bad for the plight of the disabled and deigns to throw them help out of patronizing concern. Somoza praises Clinton for seeing her, for respecting her as a professional and an independent agent in her own life. She praises Clinton for understanding the basic demands for autonomy that disabled Americans have been making, too often in vain, for decades.

Clinton demonstrated this attitude in her own speech Thursday night, recounting an anecdote from her time working on disability rights at the Children’s Defense Fund:

I went to work for the Children's Defense Fund, going door-to-door in New Bedford, Massachusetts on behalf of children with disabilities who were denied the chance to go to school.

I remember meeting a young girl in a wheelchair on the small back porch of her house. She told me how badly she wanted to go to school – it just didn't seem possible.

The emphasis, once again, is on the voice and agency of the disabled person. Clinton’s advocacy was explicitly centered on helping this girl gain autonomy, to see her desire to go to school respected.

As disability rights activist Ari Ne’eman noted at Vox on Wednesday, Democrats haven’t always been this tonally on point about disability issues. Sometimes, as in Christopher Reeve’s 1996 DNC speech, the focus was more on disability as a public health issue than on the lived experiences of disabled people.

The way the issue was discussed in Clinton’s speech, and the presence of Somoza, represents a real step forward and an indication that the Democratic Party sees the disabled community as, in Ne'eman's words, "a minority group on par with black and Latino voters, Jews and Muslims, and the LGBTQ community," a constituency rather than victims.

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