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Joe Biden Stroking an Advocate's Face Shows Why We Need to Talk About More Than Just Disability Policy

Disability advocate Samuel Habib has been on the campaign trail in New Hampshire, asking 2020 presidential candidates about their plans for disability policy. Habib’s encounter with Joe Biden, which included the former vice president stroking Habib’s face, shows that understanding the disability community requires more than good political policy.

Habib, with the help of his father Dan, has been filming his conversations about disability policy with presidential candidates, including Pete Buttigieg and Biden. The Disability Rights Center New Hampshire posted Habib’s video of his discussion with Biden, where he introduces himself as a college student and asks Biden how he will make education more inclusive for students with disabilities.

Biden answered Habib’s question, saying he would fully fund the Americans With Disabilities Act and make sure students with disabilities are included in all classes because “you’re smart.” Biden told Habib again he’s smart and then said, “The disability does not define who you are,” while stroking Habib’s face. Biden added, “God love you” and told Habib, though it may be “presumptuous,” that he was “proud” of him.

Habib’s video quickly caught the attention of others in the disability community, who called out Biden’s infantilization of Habib, from stroking his face to starting the conversation by calling him “Bud.” Habib told Andrew Pulrang for Forbes that he wasn’t comfortable with the interaction, while also pointing out Biden likely confused the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in his answer about inclusive education.

“I think he was confused about the IDEA and the ADA,” Habib told Pulrang. “I felt like he talked down to me. And I was mad that he touched my face. Because I have a disability and use a Tobii communication device, he was perceiving me differently than another 20-year-old. As not being smart.”

Biden’s infantilizing actions are indicative of a larger pattern of denying people with disabilities dignity. Habib is a 20-year-old man, but in his interaction with Biden where he was “pet,” he was treated more like a child. Joe Akmakjian explained how common this experience is for people with physical disabilities in particular in The Mighty article, “I’m an Adult. Talk to Me Like One“:

There have been many times I’ve been out at a restaurant with friends my age, ready to give my order, only to be skipped over by the server who turns to another person and asks them what I’d like to eat. Hello? I’m right here! The expectation seems to be that I can’t answer for myself. …

This experience is all too common for adults in the physically disabled community. Being overlooked is frustrating, but being talked down to — especially by my peers, people younger than me or the people who work for me as caregivers — bothers me even more. I don’t expect to be called Sir or Mr. Akmakjian — in fact I hate it. But there are other ways to demonstrate respect.

Disability Rights Center New Hampshire (DRC-NH) said part of their political work includes showcasing projects like Habib’s, which highlight not only what a candidate says about disability but how they interact with disabled people, which is equally important to observe. Representing the interests of the disability community as an elected leader goes beyond policy plans.

“How candidates respond to questions about disability and interact with people with disabilities one-on-one can be as informative as their published policy proposals,” DRC-NH Executive Director Stephanie Patrick said in a statement. Patrick continued:

As a non-partisan organization, we share all candidate responses in a uniform way and refrain from commenting on the content of any individual response-we must leave that to the viewer. The conversations that some of these videos have sparked are critically important and would certainly be missing without the efforts of people like Samuel.

While we can’t know what Biden’s intentions in his interaction with Habib were, Biden previously revealed in The Atlantic he struggled with a stutter for which he has faced mocking comments. Biden’s National Press Secretary, Jamal Brown, said in an emailed statement Biden has prioritized policy for the disability community his entire career and will continue to do so if elected president.

“Joe Biden has fought for the rights and opportunities of people with disabilities his entire career,” Brown said, adding:

From working to pass the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, the original Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1975, and its reauthorization in 1990, to working with Senator Harkin to pass the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act and with President Obama to secure historic progress through the Affordable Care Act. He also knows this fight is about dignity and respect for those of us with disabilities and chronic illnesses. As president, he would lead an Administration that works with people with disabilities to put those values into policy.

Regardless, Habib pointed out that he and other people with disabilities should be afforded the same basic dignity extended to people without disabilities, which includes respecting personal space, observing the same social conventions you would in any other situation, and assume intelligence and competence.

“I’m glad that people are responding negatively (to the video) because it brings awareness about how to treat people with disabilities,” Habib said. “It’s OK to shake my hand. It is not OK to stroke my face.”

Habib told The Mighty he is still undecided about which candidate he will vote for in the New Hampshire primary elections on Feb. 11. But he does hope Biden and the other presidential candidates are paying attention and treat people with disabilities with respect moving forward.

“I hope Joe Biden and the other candidates treat people with disabilities better,” Habib told The Mighty. “They need to respect personal space and they shouldn’t talk down to people because they are in a wheelchair. They should assume everyone is smart and competent.”