Late the night of November 4, 2008, standing before thousands of supporters in Grant Park, and speaking before millions around the world, during what for many people was the most exciting political evening of their lives, President Elect Barack Obama said the word disability. Early in the much anticipated acceptance speech, Obama said “It's the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled.” Disabled was one word sandwiched among many others designed to send a message of inclusivity, but the word spoke volumes.
On paper, Obama had always been the better disability candidate, offering a detailed platform on issues regarding people with disabilities, including co-sponsorship of the Community Choice Act, support for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and sponsorship of the 2007 Mental Health Parity Act. McCain has failed to support the Community Choice Act, has voted against refunding of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and proposed a health plan that would eliminate Mental Health Parity in 45 states. Also, Obama’s Health Care plan would prohibit insurance companies from denying coverage to people with preexisting conditions, an issue very important to many people of short stature, some of whom have been denied coverage because of dwarfism. McCain’s health plan does not prohibit insurance companies from discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions.
Though Obama’s platform included support of issues important within the disability community, he had failed to stimulate public consciousness around disability, and had failed to rally the disability community under the banner of civil rights. For years, disability advocates nationwide had urged political leaders to change the landscape of disability issues by shifting the focus of disability from special needs to civil rights. For as long as disability remained a special needs issues, then programs and services designed around disability would carry the stigma of charity and the reality of segregation. But the rights of people with disabilities are not charity. They are civil rights, deserving of the same attention as the rights of other social minority groups who have fought for their place within the country’s social and political culture.
Before the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Chicago ADAPT, a grassroots disability rights group, met with Kareem Dale, Obama’s National Disability Vote Director. Through Dale, ADAPT urged Obama to go beyond support for the issues by incorporating disability in his speech at the Denver Convention speech or by inviting a person with a visible disability to speak in prime time at the convention. On the final night in Denver, a rumor spread that a woman in a wheelchair would be among the group of people invited onto the stage following Obama’s nomination acceptance, but there was no one with a visible disability on stage, nor was there any mention of disability in prime time.
One day after the Democratic National Convention, Senator John McCain introduced Governor Sarah Palin as his Vice Presidential running mate. Overnight, the Republicans did what the Democrats would not, bring national attention to disability. The country soon learned about Trig Palin, the Governor’s four-month-old son with Down Syndrome. While Palin embraced her child, positively presenting disability as an issue that touches us all at some point in our lives, the Republican’s message underscored archaic attitudes toward disability. Rather than present people with disabilities as a social group with civil rights similar to those of other protected classes, Palin, at the convention and elsewhere, spoke publicly about her support of children with “special needs.” The message “special needs” reinforced traditional stereotypes that people with disabilities are a class in need of the country’s pity and charity. Though public exposure of disability generated some hope, McCain’s poor record combined with Palin’s antiquated message made it clear that if the Republicans were to affect the disability movement in any way, the movement would be backwards, not forwards.
As the campaign dragged on toward November 4, Joe the Plumber drowned out disability in the Republican camp. The Democrats remained silent. Then, on Election Night, the nation voted Obama into office. When he took the stage in Grant Park, Obama’s brief mention of disability released a wave of emotion within me. My body shivered and I yelled with delight, high fiving my future wife, who sat next to me on the couch and was just as thrilled. The next day at Access Living, a disability group where I work, conversations revealed that others felt the same way. All day long, I overheard people exclaim triumphantly, “Did you hear him? He said disabled and non-disabled!”
Disabled is just a word. But within the boundaries of groups struggling for independence and empowerment, words carry enough weight to either drag down or support a community. Uttered from President-elect Obama’s lips on November 4, disabled sent a message of inclusivity and empowerment, identifying people with disabilities as one of the many threads that contribute to the fabric of our society and deserving of the benefits, protections, rights and opportunities our society offers.