Politicians Ignore Disability, and It's a Big Problem

07/13/2015 05:22 pm ET Updated Jul 13, 2016
Young girl holding small block letters with message: Vote
Young girl holding small block letters with message: Vote

Watching the news, there is a lot of political buzz around social justice issues in the United States and worldwide. Women's reproductive rights, illegal immigration, police violence, and gay marriage are some of the most debated issues affecting minorities in the United States and will certainly play a role in the 2016 election. Candidates try to appeal to these groups and gain their votes by addressing them in their platforms. Think tanks, human rights organizations, and the media recognize these demographics as significant research areas and produce the facts and figures that fuel debates and legislation.

What's missing from this scene? Disability, yet again, is not recognized as a significant demographic in the political sphere.

Let's look at some examples:

The Center for American Progress is a progressive think tank located in Washington, DC. Due to their political orientation, they produce a significant amount of research on domestic social issues. Among their issues are LGBT, Race and Ethnicity, Religion and Values, and Women. While they do research on a number of issues affecting the people with disabilities, among them housing, poverty, and health care, they lack a section specifically devoted to the disability community or identity, and it would be rare for this research to be tailored to specifically the disability community. Anybody looking for research on how disabled people in particular are affected by these issues is going to encounter difficulty.

The Pew Research Center is one of the United States' leading research organizations. Pew does a significant amount of research on domestic and international policy and has an astounding 225 topic areas. There are many demographics represented: African Americans, Gender, Homosexuality, Hinduism, Judaism, the elderly, Hispanic/Latinos, Evangelicals, Millennials, and Baby Boomers are all represented. However, not one of those 225 topics is disability.

On an international level, Human Rights First represents American values around the world by fighting for human rights. They promote 28 topic areas, ranging from issues in specific countries to major demographics. They fight against anti-Semitism and Xenophobia while fighting for the rights of women and LGBT. They do not, however, seem to fight specifically for disability rights.

When it comes to 2016 candidates, they do not speak much about the disability community, nor do they show much potential to address disability in their platforms. A simple Google search will show a candidate's lack of substance on the topic of disability. For Hillary Clinton, the first result is a Mother Jones article about Social Security, followed by a 2007 statement on the International Day of Disabled Persons. Jeb Bush shows slightly more promise in a Politifact article on a mother of a developmentally disabled child who pushed for Bush to do more on disability, mainly increasing state funding; however, that same article states that lawsuits by disabled families lacking disability services were also an important factor that forced him to take action and increase funding. There is not much else available on his recognition of the disability community, such as specific policy initiatives for disabled individuals in more recent years. For most other candidates, searches for this information usually only yield results on their stances on Social Security and Medicare. Disability is never addressed as an actual identity or voting bloc and candidates never speak about specific policy issues affecting the disability community.

The political ignorance of disability should change, as the disability community actually has the power to affect the vote. Around 56 million Americans are disabled, and a Rutgers University study noted that 15.6 persons with disabilities voted in the 2012 election, a number which is 4.5 times the discrepancy of votes between Mitt Romney and President Obama. People with disabilities have a significant power to affect the vote in elections at all levels.

Unfortunately, candidates and research organizations continue to be ignorant of this, and it is difficult to figure out how to get them to change their stance. On my own, I have tried advocating through attempts to contact them. I have written to campaigns to ask them to elaborate on their stances on issues affecting the disability community, and to recognize disability in their campaign platforms. I have written most of these research organizations asking them to add disability as a research area. In every single case, I have received the same answer: silence.

This silence is unacceptable. We need to call out the political sphere for its lack of attention to the disability community. We need to call for research organizations and the media to recognize the disability community as a demographic, so that in turn, candidates can access research and become aware of issues important to the disability community. Candidates need to speak up about the disability community, not with vague, passive, and patronizing statements about how they support disabled people, but with specific stances on legislation and initiatives that would be of interest to the millions of Americans who make up this demographic.

The political sphere ignores people with disabilities, and it's getting really old. It's time for a change, and for that change to happen, we need people with disabilities to speak up and show the world that we listen, we take action, and most importantly, we vote.