Editor’s Note: Melissa Blake is a freelance writer and blogger from Illinois. She covers disability rights and women’s issues and has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Harper’s Bazaar, Good Housekeeping and Glamour, among others. Read her blog, So About What I Said, and follow her on Twitter. The views expressed in this commentary are solely hers. View more opinion on CNN.
I was born with Freeman-Sheldon syndrome, a genetic bone and muscular disorder, so I’ve always been acutely aware of what it means to be different. Yet I’ve never felt more “other” than I have since the 2016 election, in large part due to the actions of President Donald Trump and his administration.
Immediately following his inauguration, the disability section of the White House website was removed – and it hasn’t been added back (for reference, President Barack Obama’s White House site is archived and had a dedicated section for disabilities). We’ve also seen the President’s blatant ableism when he mocked a New York Times reporter and, just last week, in his tweet about Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old with Asperger’s and Time’s Person of the Year.
With all this harm, maybe that’s why the last few months have given me a much-needed renewed sense of hope. Although she recently withdrew her candidacy and some in the disability community took serious issue with her proposals, Kamala Harris was the first 2020 candidate to announce an exclusive plan for people with disabilities, back in August.
Since then, a handful of Democratic candidates, including Pete Buttigieg, Julián Castro and Andrew Yang, have spoken out about their disability plans. Buttigieg penned an op-ed for Buzzfeed in November about how he plans to “make our government work for Americans with disabilities.”
Castro shared similar sentiments in a tweet after he attended the Iowa Democrats’ Disability Caucus: “As president, I’ll fight to empower and improve the lives of individuals with disabilities – in housing, jobs, education, accessibility, and elsewhere.”
As I browsed the candidates’ official websites, I found sections highlighting disabilities easy to find for nearly all contenders.
And yet, for all this exposure, disability rights and disability inclusion have been notably absent from the discussion during the Democratic debates.
In fact, the disability platforms of the candidates haven’t exactly been a hot topic much of anywhere, and as a disabled woman, this saddens and angers me. And with the final debate of 2019 coming up this week, I’d just like to tell the candidates one thing: Please be more vocal about disabilities. Disabled people are tired of being left out of the conversation, especially when it comes to things that directly impact our lives.
This isn’t only about the candidates. When it comes to disability, moderators and members of the media need to ask questions of those in the race, not just once, but persistently.
I’ve spent the better part of 2019 wondering why this lack of disability discussion has been so stark. Surely, it’s not because disabled people don’t exist; we do exist and in large numbers. According to the CDC, 61 million adults in the United States live with a disability and people with disabilities are living, working and contributing to society like never before. The disability community has a long tradition of being on the front lines when it comes to social and political policy, Haley Moss, a Florida-based lawyer who has autism, told me.
“People with disabilities make up a sizable portion of the population eligible to vote, and it’s crucial not to alienate potential voters,” said Moss. “Disability issues intersect with all other policy proposals and ideas.”
Indeed, people with disabilities are fierce change-makers, which is why it’s essential that they’re included in discussions surrounding the crucial 2020 election and especially included in candidates’ disability platforms. After all, we know what it feels like to be left out when it comes to policy decisions – and even worse, we know what it feels like to be harmed by those policies.
As the saying goes, the personal is political. Who I am as a person and what I’ve been through because of my disability includes politics. For disabled people, it’s impossible to separate the two because what’s happening in Washington is directly affecting our personhood every day.
A headline last month proclaimed that disability rights are a “major campaign issue” for the first time in 2020. It will be easier for me to believe that when I see it for myself. What I want from Thursday’s Democratic debate is the same thing I want in all the debates and on the campaign trail: I want disabled people to be seen and I want us to be included.
And most of all, I want to see conversations taking place on that debate stage that will bring disability rights to the forefront and help us move toward the future – a future that includes true inclusion for people with disabilities.