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The 2016 Candidates Need to Stop Ignoring the Disability Vote

Jeb Bush released his first campaign ad of 2016 this month: Titled “Enough,” it attacked Republican rival Donald Trump for mocking the New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski, who has a congenital joint condition, in November. (It’s worth noting that Trump is the author of the offensively titled book Crippled America). Bush’s spot is one of the only campaign ads from the 2016 candidates to heavily spotlight people with disabilities. It starts with a mock YouTube search, “Donald Trump is a jerk,” and is followed by Bush and Bush fans criticizing Trump while b-roll of Bush talking to people with disabilities plays—used more as props than as real characters.

Historically, though, presidential candidates rarely focus on disability rights—save for the 1996 presidential campaign of former Senator Bob Dole, who became disabled because of World War II—and this election season isn’t much different. (This year, on the left, Sanders and Clinton have released ads that feature one or two people with disabilities among the group of people onscreen). While Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Jeb Bush include disability among their issues, the majority of the candidates have not released substantive plans addressing the disability community as a whole.

But as commendable as including disability in one’s platform may be, the gesture feels less genuine when the issue barely makes a stump speech, says Curt Decker, executive director of the National Disability Rights Network. “People with disabilities are a potential force in elections,” says Decker. “It’s a mistake for any politician to write [them] off.” In 2012, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that nearly 1 in 5 Americans have a disability—over 56 million people. In the last election cycle, 15.6 million people with disabilities voted, according to a 2013 Research Alliance for Accessible Voting survey report. 

Even so, just getting disabled voters to the polls is difficult, despite the passing of the 2002 Help America Vote Act, which made sweeping reforms to the voting process and made polling places more accessible after the 2000 election disaster. People with disabilities continue to be locked out of elections because of persistent inequity, inaccessibility, and negligence. Polling places not equipped with a ramp or lifts keep people using wheelchairs, canes, walkers or other mobility devices from voting—a persistent problem in the Iowa caucus, coming up February 1, says Decker. “The disability population has had to fight hard to have access to the voting process,” says Decker. But, he adds, the disability caucus is not only large, but also diverse across racial, gender, economic and party lines. People with disabilities are active in the political process, and national groups like ADAPT and the American Association for People with Disabilities lobby heavily for their rights through direct action campaigns, advocating for legislation, and petitioning city, state and federal officials.  

“There are a lot of different ways you can convey this stuff,” says Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, CEO of RespectAbilityUSA, a non-profit, non-partisan education and advocacy organization. “This is not rocket science.”  

On January 5th, Hillary Clinton released a proposal to support children and adults with autism issues, including employment, but has yet to issue a detailed plan for the rest of the disability community. The Sanders camp, on the other hand, was the first to fill out RespectAbility’s #PwDsVote2016 Campaign Scorecard for people with disabilities, which the group sent to all presidential candidates. No one aside from Sanders has completed the scorecard; the group made Sanders’s response public on Monday.   

Any potential president will have to take into account the fifth of the American population that has a disability, as a social and fiscal responsibility. Social protection programs such as Medicaid and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) are “absolutely critical” to the disability community, says Decker. Over 10 percent of the disability population is unemployed; for people without disabilities, the rate is around 5 percent, according to U.S. Department of Labor. The Center for American Progress reports that over 8.9 million workers with disabilities—including one million veterans—are eligible for SSDI, receiving on average nearly $14,000 a year.

Then there are the estimated 2.8 million school-aged children with disabilities. Despite advancements since the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—a four-part bill that guarantees students with disabilities equal access to free and appropriate public education—disabled students are still disadvantaged in the classroom. Textbooks and technology are often inaccessible and students with disabilities find themselves segregated to special education, despite research supporting their inclusion in the general education population. “A lot of it is understanding what’s possible,” said filmmaker and University of New Hampshire Institute for Disability Project Director Dan Habib, whose 16-year-old son has cerebral palsy. (Congress changed the 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act when it reauthorized the bill in 1990. It mandates schools teach eligible children with disabilities in a general education setting whenever possible and gives parents a say in a school’s decision about their child’s education).  

Moreover, people with disabilities are twice more likely to be victims of violent crimes than able-bodied Americans, reports the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. But when candidates on both sides of the aisle address gun violence, it’s in the context of keeping guns away from “the mentally ill” or combating deficiencies in mental health services, says Mizrahi. “The way candidates talk, Americans can’t trust people with mental illness,” she says. “It stigmatizes them.”

How candidates talk about disability on the campaign trail signals where their values stand—and what they might do if elected to the country’s highest office. Last election cycle, Mizrahi said, people with disabilities were “totally ignored.” The current crop of candidates has a chance to change that.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that no other candidate had replied to RespectAbility’s scorecard; this is inaccurate, as other candidates have told RespectAbility that they are in the process of completing the questionnaire. The piece has been updated to reflect this change.