This is the second post in our Symposium on Catholic Political Theology and the 2016 Elections. You can find the first post here. Future posts will appear on Fridays in the following weeks.
Disability is, by far, one of the most fluid categories among the many intersectional identities we talk about today (race, class, ethnicity, etc). According to the 2010 Census report, approximately 19% of the US population identifies as having a disability. It’s important to keep in mind that this can cover a range of conditions: seeing impairments; deafness; physical impairments such as back problems, use of a cane, or use of a wheelchair; chronic illnesses; significant mental illnesses; as well as a range of intellectual disabilities.
Of the 56.7 million people that the Census identified with a disability:
These numbers are what lead scholars to call people with disabilities “the largest minority;” and yet it is often an invisible one. In the social imagination, we think of “disability” as an all-or-nothing state. As critical disability scholar Lennard Davis offers in the first sentences of his book, Enforcing Normalcy: “The term disability, as it is commonly and professionally used, is an absolute category without a level or threshold. One is either disabled, or not. One cannot be a little disabled any more than one can be a little pregnant” (1). In reality, however, this is hardly the case. Disabilities may be temporary (in fact, the lack of a disability may itself be a more temporary state than having one), they may be invisible, they may inhibit work, or they may only need certain kinds of protected accommodations.
Yet despite the high prevalence of disability, they risk major disenfranchisement in the upcoming election. Amid a host of attention given to new ID laws that potentially disenfranchise minority voters, little attention has been paid to the impact of voting accessibility on this largest minority. NPR reports that nearly a third of voters (over 10 million) had trouble with casting their ballots, “whether it was getting into the polling place, reading the ballot, or struggling with a machine.” Only about 27% of polling places are fully accessible.
This raises a hard question. What does it say about our democracy when we care so little about making sure people with disabilities can participate?
History: The “Hidden Army” and the 1988 Elections
In the history of the disability rights movement, this “hidden army,” as Joseph Shapiro calls it in his book No Pity, had a decisive impact on the 1988 presidential election. The legislation that would eventually become the Americans with Disabilities Act was first introduced to Congress in 1988, and virtually ignored as members of the House and Senate were preoccupied with their re-election races (Shapiro, 114). The members of one of the primary activist coalitions behind the ADA, the Disability Rights and Education Defense Fund (DREDF), knew they had a battle ahead of them. Unlike the civil rights movements of the 1960s (which impacted business practices concerning black Americans but did not incur extra costs), the ADA was asking businesses to put money upfront for accommodations: the building of ramps, elevators, even the adjustment of desk and sink heights. Furthermore, this rights movement had minimal visibility: “No Martin Luther King, Jr. to bring it together, no Betty Friedan to write its manifesto…the fight for disability civil rights was a largely invisible, almost underground movement” (Shapiro, 117). Nonetheless, the DREDF and other organizations had assembled a vast network, not only of people with disabilities, but of their loved ones and caregivers, too.
Among this hidden force for justice was George H. W. Bush. Bush, Sr. had experienced the death of his daughter Robin from leukemia while still a toddler; his son Neil had a significant learning disability; and his youngest son Marvin suffered from Crohn’s disease. An uncle who had been a surgeon contracted polio as an adult and became a quadriplegic. Bush, Sr. had collaborated with disability advocates as Vice President by upholding Section 504 regulations and educational supports for students with disabilities, despite leading President Reagan’s Task Force for Regulatory Relief (Shapiro, 119-121).
So when the 1988 primaries arrived and Bush ran for the Republican nomination, the disability advocates who were Washington insiders made a strategic decision to get the ADA on the docket as an election issue. They divided themselves up and sent people to work for each presidential campaign: Bush, Sr., Senator Bob Dole, and Governor Michael Dukakis, among others.
Between Davis and Shapiro’s accounts of the 1988 elections, there are a couple of critical points at which the largest minority made a significant difference.
Davis’s history of the ADA, Enabling Acts, describes the turning point in the primaries: Dole, who while fighting in WWII had suffered a severe injury to his back and arm that limited his movement for the rest of his life, had an innate appeal to people with disabilities due to his own impairments. Bush, Sr. was trailing Dole as the New Hampshire primary arrived — along with a huge snowstorm. Shrewdly, Bush, Sr. ran a public relations campaign that showed him removing snow and shoveling driveways, making the primary polling places accessible. Dole’s actual disability prevented him from doing anything similar, and Bush, Sr. ended up winning both New Hampshire and eventually the primary (Davis, 91-92).
Then, in the general election Bush, Sr., under the advice of disability activist Evan Kemp, took the opportunity to make people with disabilities an integral part of his platform. In his acceptance speech at the RNC, Bush said: “I’m going to do whatever it takes to make sure the disabled are included in the mainstream” For the first time, says Shapiro, “an American Presidential nominee had acknowledged disabled people as a political force” (Shapiro, 124-125). Dukakis was less eager to embrace the ADA (he “most likely didn’t want to seem like a tax-and-spend liberal,” opines Davis, 97), and was unwilling to make a similar statement in support of the ADA.
In the final numbers, according to Louis Genevie of the polling firm Louis Harris and Associates, “disabled voters who had switched to Bush . . . constituted up to one-half of the four million difference of popular votes between Bush and Dukakis. This made up one to three percentage points of Bush’s seven-point margin of victory” (Shapiro, 125).
In short, people with disabilities made their voices heard in the 1988 election. This hidden army was not to be trifled with.
The 2016 Election
In its own way, disability is at the forefront of this election. First among many visible, critical incidents is the moment when Donald Trump mocked a reporter with a congenital joint condition. Despite the many criticisms (and strange defenses) of Trump’s obvious act of disregard for someone with a disability, Clinton is not immune to criticisms, either. The ad she launched targeting Trump’s aforementioned shameful mockery itself relies on unhelpful stereotypes. Despite working to include people with disabilities in her platform, Clinton has not articulated clear strategies for what she plans to do in office aside from a generalized anti-bullying platform (the rhetoric of which actually focuses on race and ethnicity). In fact, I worry that Clinton’s appeal for sympathy and inclusion of people with disabilities is less about engaging the country’s largest minority on its own terms, and more about building rapport with the nondisabled by proving to care about a minority group that Trump has expressed outright contempt for.
Factors are starting to align that make this election look more like 1988 than at first glance. A recent Pew Report indicates an increase in engagement among people with disabilities for this election. But it poses a problem for our election, and for our communities in general, if people with disabilities cannot actually cast their vote in November.
As an ethicist and a theologian, I firmly believe in the preferential option for the poor, and that the preferential option is a necessary component that prevents a privileged majority from ignoring the needs of an oppressed minority. While there are many areas of the United States democracy wherein the preferential option can be implemented, it seems to me that accessible voting is one of the most necessary baseline requirements. Ignoring those needs — ignoring the hidden army of disability activists — is a detriment to both political candidates and our society as a whole.
Lorraine Cuddeback is a PhD candidate in moral theology at the University of Notre Dame. Her research is in social ethics, particularly disability and theology, Catholic social teaching, and feminist ethics. Her dissertation is about ethics, practices, and theologies of inclusion for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.