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How the 2020 Candidates Have (and Have Not) Included People With Disabilities


The first half of the first debate series concluded and the words “disabled” and “disability” were not mentioned once. When 20 percent of our country’s population have a disability — and a recent survey shows that fully three-quarters of likely voters either have a disability themselves or have a family member or a close friend with disabilities — it was a missed opportunity. If a presidential candidate hopes to have success in 2020, he or she must represent all Americans, especially those with disabilities.

For a presidential campaign to be fully inclusive of people with disabilities, it needs to meet the following requirements: (1) offer captioning with every video it shares or produces, (2) mention people with disabilities and their issues, (3) depict people with visible disabilities in its media, (4) reach out to the disability community, and (5) provide accessible campaign events and website. So we examined the candidates’ websites, social media and more to determine how accessible and inclusive the candidates truly are.

Joe Biden
Former Vice President Joe Biden released a powerful announcement video where he stressed that “we’re in a battle for the soul of America.” He discussed the racial tensions rising in our country and the critical need for a change in the White House. Most versions of the video, including on his campaign YouTube page, include some form of accurate captioning. Biden released a Spanish speaking video as well, which also included accurate captioning in Spanish and English, with Spanish subtitles.  However, Biden did not mention or depict people with disabilities in his early videos which focused on what happened in Charlottesville.

Nevertheless, Biden did mention the word disability on his campaign website. His campaign is grounded on the idea that “we’ve got to make sure our democracy includes everyone.” And he follows through on that idea by writing, “We need to rebuild the middle class, and this time make sure everybody — regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or disability — gets a fair shot.”

But his website does not depict a single image of a person with a visible disability, among a variety of images depicting various racial minorities. And when discussing specific issues, like employment, criminal justice and voting rights, Biden mentions connections to race, gender and sexual orientation, but fails to show the connection to disability. These issues are very relevant to the disability community, which is disproportionately impacted by each of them.

Bill de Blasio
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s campaign launch video relies on YouTube’s auto-captioning, which often contains errors. Some videos on his social media profiles do not have captions at all. Without accurate captions on all video content, people who are deaf or hard of hearing are being left out of the campaign. None of the photos on de Blasio’s website have alt-text, which means visitors who use screen readers will not know what is in the photos.

Additionally, while the campaign launch video shows diverse people from many backgrounds, nobody with a visible disability is featured in the video. And de Blasio has not gone out of his way to target people with disabilities with his message thus far.

Cory Booker
Sen. Cory Booker announced his presidential campaign with a colorful, creative and exciting announcement video on social media that incorporated a black marching band drum line. The video had fantastic and accurate open captioning that only failed to caption the upbeat drum line background music. However, he made no mention of people with disabilities nor depicted any Americans with visible disabilities. And the videos he has since released make these same mistakes, sometimes even failing to include captioning at all. Thus far he has missed the opportunity to have a fully disability inclusive video campaign.

Further, his website says, “Cory is leading the fight for equal justice for all Americans.” However, while his website mentions and depicts diversity in race, gender and sexual orientation, it does not mention or depict people with disabilities once. True diversity exists only if people with disabilities are included, and a candidate cannot represent all Americans if he is excluding 20-25 percent of them.

Steve Bullock
While two pre-launch videos that Gov. Steve Bullock released have accurate open captioning, the campaign launch video itself relies on YouTube’s auto-captioning, which often contains errors. Without accurate captions on all video content, people who are deaf or hard of hearing are being left out of the campaign. None of the photos on Bullock’s website have alt-text, which means that visitors who use screen readers will not know what is in the photos.

Additionally, while the campaign launch video shows diverse people from many backgrounds, nobody with a visible disability is featured in the video. And Gov. Bullock has not gone out of his way to target people with disabilities with his message thus far.

Pete Buttigieg
Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s announcement video included accurate open captioning, and was just one of a few 2020 presidential announcement videos to do so. However, he failed to mention or depict people with disabilities, even though he depicted an otherwise diverse group of people. His recent video message in ASL and the hiring of Emily Voorde, who identifies with the disability community, show that Buttigieg is learning and adapting to ensure he is being welcoming and fully accessible for all.

Julián Castro
Julián Castro (D-TX), the former Mayor of San Antonio and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) under the Obama Administration, announced his presidential ambitions on January 12 in an announcement speech he delivered to a large crowd of supporters in his hometown of San Antonio. His speech is available on YouTube with automatic YouTube closed captioning. While the captioning had some minor mistakes and failed to caption sounds other than Castro’s speech, it was generally accurate. However, he mentioned various minority communities but failed to include people with disabilities in his speech. While the crowd was visibly diverse, no one with a visible disability was depicted.

Castro also prides himself on having made affordable accessible housing for people with disabilities a priority when he served as HUD Secretary. Under the “About” section of his presidential campaign website, he writes, “Together, my team and I made housing more accessible, lessened homelessness among our nation’s veterans and even offered internet access to families in public housing.” Castro is one of the only presidential candidate thus far this season to discuss an issue specific to the disability community on his website. In making this statement, he sends a clear message to the community that he recognizes the importance of disability issues and that “People First” means people with disabilities too.

Castro also sends this message every time he posts a video on social media, as nearly all of his videos include some form of accurate captioning. However, he rarely if ever posts content that relates to disability issues or depicts people with visible disabilities. His website also fails to include pictures of people with visible disabilities.

John Delaney
Many of former Rep. John Delaney’s videos have captions, but there are some exceptions, including a video from an appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. Some videos rely on YouTube’s auto-captioning, which often contains errors. Without accurate captions on all video content, people who are deaf or hard of hearing are being left out of the campaign. Additionally, photos on Delaney’s website do not have alt-text, and photos on his Facebook page rely on automatically generated alt-text, which is not descriptive enough. This means Delaney’s message is not accessible to people who use screen readers.

While Delaney has work to do on being technically accessible, he has brought up people with disabilities and the issues they face several times during the campaign so far. Delaney’s campaign released a video titled “John Delaney’s Immigration Story” talking about his grandfather who was detained and nearly deported while immigrating to this country with his family. This was because his grandfather only had one arm and back in the 1920s, the United States did not allow people with disabilities to immigrate to America. Additionally, Delaney’s website has a dedicated page on Mental Health, as well as pages on Health Care and Prescription Drugs.

Tulsi Gabbard
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s campaign is almost entirely related to her positions against war and regime change interventions. Her announcement video showcased her campaign’s theme of peace and love over war and divisiveness, while also including people with disabilities. The video included accurate open captioning and, more importantly, depicted a disabled veteran who uses a wheelchair. To date, she and Klobuchar are the only candidates who have depicted someone with a visible disability in their announcement videos. However, she did not talk about people with disabilities, or any other minority community, and the issues important to them.

Her website follows her announcement video’s theme by focusing on issues of the military and outlining her qualifications for Commander-in-Chief. Naturally, when discussing the costs of war, it is integral to remember our veterans returning home with disabilities, including PTSD, which Gabbard does by including a picture of an elderly disabled veteran in a wheelchair. In fact, she is the only candidate for president who has a picture of an individual with a visible disability on her website. However, she fails to mention the disability community and their issues or make any suggestions of how to address these issues.

Since the release of her announcement video and the launch of her campaign website, she has released many videos on social media which have followed along the same lines of inclusion. She makes a concerted effort to ensure her videos have accurate captioning. She depicts people with visible disabilities, albeit always veterans. And she discusses how the cost of war is better spent on the needs of the American people. But she never mentions people with disabilities outside the context of wounded veterans. This could leave voters with disabilities to conclude that Gabbard, like so many politicians before her, might only care about disability when it is acquired in war.

Kirsten Gillibrand
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s campaign does not have an official YouTube page and has relied on Facebook and Twitter to share videos. While many of the key campaign messaging videos have accurate open captions, several of the videos Gillibrand has posted on Facebook and Instagram lack captions of any kind. Without captions on all video content, people who are deaf or hard of hearing are being left out of the campaign.

Additionally, infographics on Gillibrand’s Facebook and Instagram profiles do not have descriptive alternative text. Her website does not have alt text on photos. This means Gillibrand’s message is not accessible to people who use screen readers.

Kamala Harris
Sen. Kamala Harris’ announcement on ABC News, which is now available on YouTube, offers closed captioning – which is becoming more common among news outlets. Harris made no mention of people with disabilities. However, in her interview with Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, which also includes closed captioning, Harris mentioned people with disabilities in her remarks. She discussed how parents of children with severe disabilities came to Capitol Hill to protest attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA). However, she failed to accurately acknowledge that Democrats were successful in defeating the repeal of the ACA in great part due to many adults with various disabilities. Major disability activists and advocacy organizations, who protested for weeks, organized sit-ins at Congressional offices and often were arrested and even pulled from their wheelchairs in a fight for their lives.

Harris made her announcement speech to a large crowd in Oakland, California, where she stated, “I’m running to be President of the people, by the people and for all people.” While Harris discussed many different minority communities in her speech, as was expected given her campaign’s focus on civil rights, she failed to mention people with disabilities specifically. And despite the fact that Oakland is a city known for its high population of people with disabilities, no crowd members with visible disabilities are depicted in the video coverage.

Harris has published several snippets of her speech on Facebook, adding open captioning to each. This is important not only for people who are deaf or hard of hearing but also for the general public, as 85 percent of people watch Facebook videos on mute. Her announcement video also included professional, creative and accurate open captioning, which could only be improved by describing the background music. But she neglected to mention or depict people with disabilities in her video.

Since her announcement, Harris officially launched her website, where she posted a campaign video that discusses her history, her accomplishments and the goal of her campaign, as well as a page dedicated to listing her achievements and record. The video included accurate open captions. However, she again failed to mention or depict people with disabilities after highlighting other minority communities. Therefore, her message of “for all people” might get lost on people with disabilities.

John Hickenlooper
Former Gov. John Hickenlooper’s announcement video provided accurate open captioning. However, it did not mention or depict people with disabilities. The only depiction of disability it had was a scene of Hickenlooper exiting a building marked “handicap entrance.”

Jay Inslee
Gov. Jay Inslee announced his presidential candidacy by releasing a video on Facebook and making a speech over Facebook Live and a general news broadcast. His announcement video had accurate open captioning and even depicted a person with a visible disability — a child with asthma using an inhaler. His announcement speech on Facebook Live, however, did not include any captions or an ASL interpreter. However, the media that broadcast his speech did offer accurate closed captioning. Gov. Inslee mentioned communities of color, the Muslim community and others in need of change but failed to mention the disability community. And while he listed many of his accomplishments as Governor of Washington, unfortunately he failed to mention the many he has made for Washingtonians with disabilities.

Amy Klobuchar
Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s announcement speech was inclusive of people with disabilities because she told a chilling and unfortunately all-too-common story of a young man with diabetes in her state who died due to rationing the insulin he couldn’t afford. And her announcement video was inclusive because she had open captioning and depicted a diverse array of individuals in the video, including one person with a visible disability – a senior who walks with the assistance of a walker.

Since she announced her candidacy, Klobuchar also has continued to be inclusive of people with disabilities. During a recent CNN Town Hall, she mentioned the words “Down syndrome,” “diabetes,” “alcoholism,” “addiction” and “autism” in a meaningful way. When responding to a question on school shootings, she even responded with how devastating they are for students with disabilities, due to a lack of emergency evacuation measures available to assist these students.

Beto O’Rourke
Former Rep. Robert “Beto” O’Rourke’s presidential announcement speech was given to a large and spirited crowd in El Paso, Texas. In an incredible move of inclusivity and solidarity, he had three American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters on stage with him. Many politicians fail to provide even one ASL interpreter at their events, and when they do, they often hide them in areas that are difficult for the general public to see. O’Rourke made neither of these mistakes at his announcement speech, placing the interpreters front and center for the crowd to see. He regularly provides ASL interpreters at his campaign events.

However, the video coverage of his campaign launch rally provided on YouTube, his website and social media fail to keep an interpreter in frame or offer any form of captioning. This seems to be an unfortunate pattern. Few of his videos on Facebook and Twitter provide any form of captioning. The likely reason his Facebook videos lack captioning is because they are made live, which would require live captioning. While it is standard for candidates to provide live video without captioning, they generally provide snippets of those videos on social media with captioning afterwards. In O’Rourke’s case, however, these snippets are not offered for most of his videos, leaving those with hearing impairments unable to participate in his social media campaign. Moreover, most people prefer to watch videos on mute with the captioning on. The campaign’s failure to provide captioning translates into most people simply scrolling past the video rather than listening, if they even can.

Tim Ryan
Most of Rep. Tim Ryan’s videos have captions of some form, but there are exceptions, like this video from Fox News. The videos produced by the campaign have accurate open captions. But too many videos on his YouTube page rely on YouTube’s automatic captioning, which often contains errors. These captions can be fixed for free, but that has not always been done on his videos. Without accurate captions on all video content, people who are deaf or hard of hearing are being left out of the campaign. Additionally, photos on his website do not have alt-text, and photos on his Facebook page rely on automatically generated alt-text, which is not descriptive enough. This means Ryan’s message is not accessible to people who use screen readers.

Bernie Sanders
As he did in 2016, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign has a dedicated page on their website for disability issues. While some of the other campaigns have pages on mental health, the Sanders campaign is the only one to have a dedicated page on disability rights on his website.

Sanders’ official YouTube page has some videos that include open captions, but many videos on the page, including his announcement video, rely on YouTube’s automatic captioning, which often contains errors. Without accurate captions on all video content, people who are deaf or hard of hearing are being left out of the campaign.

Additionally, infographics on Sanders’ Facebook and Instagram profiles do not have descriptive alternative text. His website does not have alt-text on photos. This means Sanders’ message is not fully accessible to people who use screen readers.

Eric Swalwell
All of Rep. Eric Swalwell’s videos on YouTube from the past three months have captions of some kind. Many have open captions, and the rest have YouTube’s automatic captioning. YouTube’s automatic captioning often contains errors, so it would be best if Swalwell’s campaign went in and ensured the accuracy of the captions. Additionally, Swalwell has posted videos on Instagram without any captions. Without accurate captions on all video content, people who are deaf or hard of hearing are being left out of the campaign.

Additionally, photos on Swalwell’s website do not have alt-text, and photos on his Facebook page rely on automatically generated alt-text, which is not descriptive enough. This means Swalwell’s message is not accessible to people who use screen readers.

Donald Trump
While President Donald Trump has mentioned employment for people with disabilities in his 2019 State of the Union address, and issued a proclamation for National Disability Employment Awareness Month, his campaign’s online presence has not met the mark on inclusivity.

On the President’s official social media accounts, videos posted do not have captions. Videos on President Trump’s YouTube channel rely on YouTube’s automatic captioning, which often contains errors. These errors can be fixed for free but that has not been done on President Trump’s videos. Videos that didn’t automatically generate captions don’t have captions at all. Without accurate captions on all video content, people who are deaf or hard of hearing are being left out of the campaign.

Additionally, photos on President Trump’s campaign website and Twitter do not have alt-text, and photos on his Facebook page rely on automatically generated alt-text, which is not descriptive enough. This means the President’s message is not accessible to people who use screen readers.

Elizabeth Warren
Many of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s videos have captions, but there are plenty of exceptions. Videos of Warren meeting voters in Iowa and Warren calling a supporter on the phone do not have captions at all. Additionally, some videos rely on YouTube’s auto-captioning, which often contains errors. Without captions on all video content, people who are deaf or hard of hearing are being left out of the campaign.

Additionally, photos on the campaign’s Facebook page rely on alt-text that is generated by Facebook, which is not descriptive enough. For example, this photo has the alt text “Image may contain: 1 person.” This leaves out people with vision impairments who use screen readers to access content.

Warren briefly mentioned people with disabilities along with other minority groups in her campaign announcement speech, saying, “We can’t be blind to the fact that the rules in our country have been rigged against other people for a long time  —  women, LGBTQ Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, immigrants, people with disabilities  —  and we need to call it out.”

Marianne Williamson
While Marianne Williamson’s message is one of love and caring for each other, her presidential campaign is struggling to effectively share that message with the disability community. The videos she shares on social media and her website typically have no captioning or have YouTube automated closed captioning, which is unedited, leaving even glaring mistakes like the repeated misspelling of her own name. And the captioning (which can fairly easily be fixed for free) is often so inaccurate that it’s difficult to impossible to follow. Thus, Williamson demonstrates an obvious attempt at disability inclusion by providing captioning on many of her videos. However, it is all for naught if the captioning is illogical and disorganized.

Moreover, Williamson spends a great deal of time discussing the struggles of various marginalized communities in America, except for our nation’s largest minority community – Americans with disabilities. She often discusses healthcare, education, mass incarceration and income inequality. All of these issues greatly impact the disability community, yet she never mentions the connection or any other issues specific to disability.

Finally, Williamson depicts Americans of various demographics on her website and social media. In fact, her website has a section called “We the People,” which contains a collage of photographs depicting men, women, children and even a dog of various ages, backgrounds and sexual orientations. For her campaign to truly reflect “We the People,” 20 percent of those depicted in her media would have a disability. However, not one of the individuals in that section has a visual disability.

Andrew Yang
Unlike most of his rivals, Andrew Yang has not released an official presidential announcement video. However, the videos he shares of interviews, short speeches or an amalgamation of clips, inconsistently include accurate captioning. He has done a better-than-average job at discussing people with disabilities and their issues on the campaign trail, and he has made a point to reach out to the disability community by working with the National Democratic Disability Caucus and speaking to its members.

However, the campaign recently made local news when the Iowa Gazette reported that one of its residents, a disability advocate who is a wheelchair user went to participate in a Yang campaign event, only to find the event was only accessible by stairs. The Yang campaign did not respond to the Gazette for comment. But the campaign now has a staffer charged with disability inclusion, who has communicated the campaign’s dedication to being fully inclusive of people with disabilities.

More on How to Tell If a Presidential Campaign Is Inclusive of People With Disabilities

Closed and Open Captioning
The first and easiest way to ensure that an announcement is inclusive of people with disabilities is to offer accurate and descriptive closed or open captioning for those who are deaf. Often the simplest solution is to offer free, basic YouTube closed captioning. However, these are routinely inaccurate, under-descriptive and fail to appear at a proper rate of speed. Instead, campaigns should ensure the accuracy of captions – whether closed or open – and accurately caption every word, sound and music at the moment they are heard in the video.

Mentioning People With Disabilities
Candidates for president always try to speak to and mention various American communities. Most commonly, they address communities of color, religious groups, the middle-class and the LGBTQ community. However, they often fail to mention the disability community, despite it being the largest minority in the country. And if disability is mentioned, it is typically in the context of disabled veterans.

Presidential candidates should mention people with disabilities by name in their announcement videos and speeches. The disability community is impacted greatly by every major issue these candidates discuss, from criminal justice and education to healthcare and unemployment. Candidates should recognize this impact and send a strong message to Americans with disabilities that candidates care about their future as well.

Depicting People With Visible Disabilities
Presidential announcement videos typically feature Americans from various backgrounds. Men and women, young and old, people of color, veterans and members of the military, and people from the LGBTQ community are regularly depicted in these announcement videos. However, more than 5.6 million African-Americans have a disability; 4.9 million Latino-Americans have a disability; and more than one-third of LGB adults identify as having a disability. Candidates usually neglect to include people from these communities who have visible disabilities.

This oversight can easily be rectified by including wheelchair users, visually impaired individuals walking with the assistance of a dog or cane, someone using American Sign Language (ASL), or people who use medical equipment such as walkers, oxygen tanks or tracheostomies. These representations should accurately depict the diversity of the community, such as people of color with a disability or women with a disability.

Looking to the Future

Voter research conducted by RespectAbility shows how disability issues connect to all aspects of American life. It is in the best interest of every presidential candidate and the citizens of this country for candidates to recognize disability issues during their campaigns.

“Candidates for office ignore the disability community at their peril,” said former U.S. Representative and Dallas Mayor Steve Bartlett. Bartlett, who was a primary author of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, is the board chair of RespectAbility. “People with disabilities are politically active swing voters, and candidates should take note of the important issues they care about.”

Compared to the presidential announcements in 2016, which often failed to even include closed captioning, the 2020 presidential campaign season has started out on a better foot regarding disability inclusion. Most of the presidential campaign announcement videos this season have included closed captioning. But disability inclusion requires more than accurate closed captioning. Candidates must do even more to ensure the disability community is properly included. When more than 20 percent of the American public has a disability, it is a missed opportunity for campaigns to do otherwise and sends a clear message to people with disabilities that their vote is unwanted.

Additional research provided by Ariella Barker.

RespectAbility is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that fights stigmas and advances opportunities for people with disabilities. RespectAbility does not rate or endorse candidates. View more coverage of 2020 presidential candidates.

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