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Why Disability Representation in Politics Matters More Than Ever

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Representation matters. In this election year, how do we decide who to vote for? What issues are most important to us? I believe most of us seek a candidate and a party that represents us. We want to see ourselves reflected not just in the candidates, but the ordinary people who support and represent them at conventions, rallies, and commentaries. Yet for many people with disabilities, seeing someone on TV or at a political rally who looks like us, whose life is like ours, is an unusual event. We have rarely been given a voice in national politics. Until now.

When I was a little girl, I read a biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I learned he had polio and that he was our first and thus far only President with a significant physical disability. I also learned he felt he had to hide the extent of his disability, using braces and carefully staged photo opportunities to conceal the fact that he couldn’t walk. He refused to be photographed in a wheelchair, to the point where very few photos of him using one survive. Although I understand his decision in the context of the times, it doesn’t exactly make me feel pride as a person with a disability. He was one of the strongest leaders in U.S. history, yet feared being perceived as weak because of stereotypes about disability.

Some years later, not long after the Americans With Disabilities Act became law, I visited Washington, D.C. I remember marveling that the bathrooms in the Senate office building were wheelchair accessible, since that was unusual at the time. I asked one of our tour guides about it, and she said it was because of Max Cleland, a senator who used a wheelchair due to injuries from the Vietnam War. I had never heard of him before, but I felt immediate solidarity and pride. If he could be a senator with a disability, I could accomplish anything I chose.

Many years after that, I watched Representative Tammy Duckworth giving a speech on TV, proudly striding across the stage on her prosthetic legs. Her words were powerful, and her personality was dynamic. She inspired me in that moment. She made me believe someone in our government might actually understand my life and care about me. She seemed like someone who might one day be President and do so while embracing her disability without shame.

Since then, politics have taken a turn for the nasty. We have a major party’s presidential nominee talking about building walls, banning people based on religion, and mocking people with disabilities on TV. The latter particularly offended me, especially since it didn’t get much attention in the news at first. The disability community was talking about it, but it seemed no one else cared. The Democratic National Convention showed me that’s not true.

Seeing Anastasia Somoza speak at the DNC had a profound impact on me. I felt a renewed sense of hope watching a woman only a few years younger than me, with the same disability, being treated as the professional she is and speaking at one of the most important events of our time. She helped me realize things are changing. Young people with disabilities have more opportunities than they did in the past. They have more opportunities than I had. But we also still have a long way to go.

Somoza’s speech has gone viral and is leading to interviews, appearances, and most importantly conversations about disability. We need to keep having those conversations. It’s easy for politicians to throw a big party for themselves and say all the things they believe, but how often do they actually accomplish what they promise to do? I appreciate the fact that the Democratic Party is including us and not mocking us, but realistically, that’s setting a pretty low bar. Basic respect should not be too much to ask for, though apparently this year, it is. But we need more.

Supporting people with disabilities is about more than including us in convention speeches. It’s about passing important laws like the Disability Integration Act to guarantee and improve in-home care services people like me need to live independently. It’s about changing laws that favor nursing homes over independent living, and ensuring a skilled workforce by guaranteeing high wages for home care workers.

It’s about expanding the ABLE Act, so it is open to all people with disabilities and allows us to save more money each year for important expenses, without risking our benefits.

It’s about fighting for jobs for people with disabilities; our unemployment rate is far worse than other groups we talk about more. It’s about reforming “work incentives” that are supposed to help people with disabilities to work and still receive essential health benefits like Medicare and in-home care, but actually make being employed overly complicated.

It’s about adding more teeth to the ADA and pursuing change in cities behind the times and still have many businesses with basic access barriers like a single step at an entrance.

It’s about creating more affordable housing and accessible apartments and homes, so people with disabilities can find a place to live and older adults can remain in their homes as they age.

It’s about investing in technologies of the future, such as self-driving cars, robotic limbs, and fully-featured powered wheelchairs, and ensuring they are affordable to people with disabilities.

It’s about reforming our justice system, where people with developmental and mental health disabilities are disproportionately harmed, and promoting education, treatment, and rehabilitation for nonviolent offenders.

It’s about recognizing that the disability rights struggle intersects with the struggles of other groups. Many people with disabilities, including Somoza, also belong to minority racial or ethnic groups. We are Christians and Jews and Muslims and atheists. Some of us are members of the LGBT community. When we have conversations and learn to understand each other, we’ll find out how much we have in common and realize we shouldn’t let people try to divide us.

As voters, we have to decide which party and candidate we feel will best accomplish these goals. For me, it’s the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton. It certainly isn’t Donald Trump and his campaign of hate and divisiveness.

With that said, I acknowledge that many important disability rights laws, including the Americans With Disabilities Act, were bipartisan efforts. I will always be willing to have a dialogue with any respectful person, regardless of party affiliation. We can only accomplish change for people with disabilities if we work together.

Follow this journey on Free Wheelin’.
Originally published: July 27, 2016
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