DNC puts disability issues front and center

Disability rights advocate: Hillary has invested in me
Disability rights advocate: Hillary has invested in me

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Story highlights

  • Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux: sharp contrasts visible between DNC and RNC on disability issues
  • From Bill Clinton's speech: "Hillary never made fun of people with disabilities, she tried to empower them"

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux (@ameliatd) is a writer and editor based in Chicago. Her work has been published in a variety of outlets, including National Journal, FiveThirtyEight, and New York Magazine.

(CNN)Every election cycle, as candidates traverse the country with messages carefully tailored for every possible cross-section of the population, there's at least one voting bloc that's consistently ignored: people with disabilities. It's a puzzling oversight, given that by some measures, more than one in five Americans has a disability, a number that will only continue to grow as the baby boomers age.

This year, though, the Democrats are making disability issues a central part of their convention. On Tuesday night, which happened to be the 26th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, several disability rights advocates took the stage to declare their support for Hillary Clinton.
    Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux
    "As a disabled person, I became a lawyer to advocate that disability is not a problem to be cured, but a part of our identity and diversity," said Dynah Haubert, a lawyer who works for a disability rights organization. "And that's why on the 26th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, I'm with her."
    After a presentation on her support for health care reform, Ryan Moore, a health care advocate with spondyloepiphyseal Dysplasia dwarfism, spoke about his longtime friendship with Clinton. "I wish everyone could get to know Hillary's heart like I have," he said. "She always looks out for the little guy — no pun intended."
    The contrast between the DNC and last week's Republican National Convention was sharp. As disability activists were quick to point out, the RNC's sole speaker with a disability focused almost exclusively on his own odds-defying recovery from a spinal cord injury, rather than the lack of access and systemic discrimination faced by people with disabilities.
    One Twitter user concluded, "I have to say it's only day 2 of the #DemConvention but it has been 100% better on disability than #RNCinCLE."
    It's not difficult to draw other unflattering comparisons between the two major party candidates. After a rocky start in the spring of 2015, when Hillary Clinton was criticized for briefly parking her campaign van in a handicapped spot, her campaign took significant steps on disability issues. Clinton added a dedicated page on her website for them and unveiled a campaign focusing on autism. On Twitter, an advocate noted using the hashtag #CriptheVote that disability is mentioned more than 30 times in this year's Democratic Party platform.
    On Tuesday night, Sen. Tom Harkin, one of the architects of the ADA, extolled Clinton's commitment to the issue, especially her opposition to tiered wages that allow employers to pay workers with disabilities well below the minimum wage, a policy that contributes to high rates of poverty among people with disabilities. In an especially moving moment at the end of the speech, he taught the crowd to sign "America."
    All this might be less noteworthy if Donald Trump didn't present such a staggeringly negative contrast. He brushed off attacks after he mocked a New York Times reporter with a physical disability. Later, he explained he had spent "a lot of money" making his buildings accessible, although his properties also have been sued multiple times for ADA violations. When the advocacy organization RespectAbility asked candidates to fill out a questionnaire about disability rights, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and at least three of Trump's erstwhile Republican rivals responded. From Trump? Nothing.
    In a speech on Monday night, disability rights advocate Anastasia Somoza, who has worked with the Clinton Foundation, directly called out Trump. "Donald Trump doesn't see me, he doesn't hear me, and he definitely doesn't think for me," said Somoza. Even Bill Clinton noted the difference between the two candidates in his speech: "Hillary never made fun of people with disabilities, she tried to empower them."
    But even if this year the prospect of greater political polarization is inspiring more people with disabilities to vote for Clinton, many will still face challenges getting to the pollsthanks to everything from inaccessible election sites and transportation to the polls to the effects of strict voter ID laws that could have a disproportionate effect on voters with disabilities. And the political party that seems to be pulling ahead on disability rights is still far from inclusive. After all, fewer than 10% of Democratic delegates at this year's convention have a disability.
    That's why this year's prominence at the DNC isn't just a victory for disability issues, it's also a call to do better in the future — one that both political parties would do well to heed.