Autistic Future
September 23rd, 2016

History Just Happened

I sug­gest that all of us take a long, hard look at this week make sure we don’t for­get. If we ever have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to talk about his­to­ry we’ve seen, this moment will prob­a­bly come up. A seri­ous con­tender for the U.S. pres­i­den­cy just rec­og­nized dis­abil­i­ty issues and the dis­abil­i­ty com­mu­ni­ty, and it was not with a token con­ven­tion slot for a minor speak­er. It was the can­di­date her­self dis­cussing the sub­stan­tive issues that mat­ter to dis­abled peo­ple. Clin­ton’s speech shows that nuances and depth of her under­stand­ing of the peo­ple she claims to cham­pi­on may still have room to grow, but it was tru­ly his­toric, a moment worth remembering.

It should­n’t be amaz­ing when a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date rec­og­nizes peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties because we are a large minor­i­ty. It is, though, because we are, as Clin­ton acknowl­edged, “invis­i­ble, over­looked[.]” We are often left out of our soci­ety’s nar­ra­tives about itself. Fic­tion, in any media, that fea­tures char­ac­ters with dis­abil­i­ties who are real peo­ple, have real­is­tic impair­ments, and do things that are not relat­ed to their dis­abil­i­ties is so rare as to be ground­break­ing. Stuck in dis­abled-only build­ings and class­rooms, chil­dren with dis­abil­i­ties aren’t always vis­i­ble in schools. Prob­lems with access to edu­ca­tion and dis­crim­i­na­tion, some­times sub­tle, some­times overt, in hir­ing, reten­tion, and pro­mo­tion mean that we are not always vis­i­bly part of the work­place. When we are there, many who are able to do so choose to hide their dis­abil­i­ties for fear of such dis­crim­i­na­tion. We are rarely vis­i­ble as lead­ers. Peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties are twen­ty per­cent of the U.S. pop­u­la­tion, but we cer­tain­ly aren’t twen­ty per­cent of the peo­ple hold­ing elect­ed office. Recent spec­u­la­tion over Clin­ton’s own health shows some of the rea­sons for that.

We aren’t always even vis­i­ble in pub­lic. It is becom­ing less com­mon for peo­ple to spend their whole lives in large, state-run insti­tu­tions, but nurs­ing homes and group homes of an insti­tu­tion­al char­ac­ter have replaced them in many places. Peo­ple in these set­tings may not be able to go out into the com­mu­ni­ty at will. Even peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties who are liv­ing in real homes some­times strug­gle to ven­ture out. Phys­i­cal and sen­so­ry acces­si­bil­i­ty bar­ri­ers, the lack of need­ed ser­vices and assis­tance, and poor tran­sit options for peo­ple who can’t dri­ve can make it chal­leng­ing for peo­ple to so much as leave their homes.

Our invis­i­bil­i­ty may be why we have often been ignored by politi­cians. Even though we are a large minor­i­ty that any­one can join at any time, our needs are rarely dis­cussed. Even though the whole of soci­ety would ben­e­fit if one in five Amer­i­cans could become more includ­ed and engaged, the pos­si­bil­i­ty is rarely dis­cussed. Beyond the vision­ary civ­il rights laws, a lot of the pol­i­cy that has been made for peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties is ter­ri­ble. Cru­cial pro­grams are under­fund­ed, inef­fec­tu­al or both. Some poli­cies actu­al­ly push peo­ple away from finan­cial sta­bil­i­ty, bur­den­ing entire fam­i­lies with pover­ty that does­n’t need to exist. Politi­cians prac­ti­cal­ly nev­er show­case our con­cerns, and it is even more rare that they talk about what we want. Clin­ton’s will­ing­ness to do that is what makes her speech tru­ly his­toric. She brought up some of the same issues that advo­cates in and of the dis­abil­i­ty com­mu­ni­ty would have if we had been giv­en that stage, like shel­tered work­shops where peo­ple with some dis­abil­i­ties are paid sub-min­i­mum wages, lack of access to high­er edu­ca­tion, and the dis­abil­i­ty com­mu­ni­ty’s abysmal employ­ment rate. She even came out in favor of CRPD. Unlike a lot of non-dis­abled advo­cates who claim to sup­port peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, Clin­ton did her research and aligned her pri­or­i­ties with her own.

The speech was­n’t per­fect. There are aspects of it that a per­son who lives as part of the dis­abil­i­ty com­mu­ni­ty, and has for many years, would have han­dled with more nuance and poise. Clin­ton used a lot of anec­dotes. While this is typ­i­cal of cam­paign speech­es, it prob­a­bly rubbed some peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties the wrong way. Accus­tomed to hav­ing our sto­ries exploit­ed as inspi­ra­tion porn or used against us by peo­ple who hope to show that our lives are bad and harm­ful to oth­ers, many of us aren’t com­fort­able such with brief, by neces­si­ty two-dimen­sion­al, insis­tent­ly opti­mistic por­tray­als. Some­one well-versed in dis­abil­i­ty cul­ture would have thought hard about the bag­gage that comes with that nar­ra­tive choice and might have found a dif­fer­ent way to struc­ture the speech to avoid mak­ing some of the intend­ed audi­ence feel tokenized.

Clin­ton also left out an impor­tant ten­sion in dis­abil­i­ty eco­nom­ic issues: dis­abil­i­ty advo­cates pret­ty much all want real work to become more acces­si­ble, but we also want peo­ple who may nev­er make a net pos­i­tive eco­nom­ic con­tri­bu­tion to be val­ued, respect­ed, safe, and hap­py. Work should be the norm for dis­abled adults because the fact that it is the norm for adults in our soci­ety makes it an impor­tant locus of inclu­sion. How­ev­er, to care about dis­abil­i­ty jus­tice is to under­stand that peo­ple have val­ue apart from their out­put. Clin­ton’s empha­sis on work left some advo­cates wor­ried that her agen­da will leave peo­ple who can­not be jus­ti­fied in eco­nom­ic terms behind. She would also have done well to acknowl­edge the dis­abil­i­ty com­mu­ni­ty’s incred­i­ble diversity.

Such speech­es, though, have to appeal to peo­ple beyond their intend­ed audi­ences and stay with­in tight time con­straints. Clin­ton nev­er sug­gest­ed that work and mon­ey are the only way to val­ue a life, talk­ing about ben­e­fits has a nar­row­er appeal in a tight elec­tion, and work may be a more achiev­able cam­paign promise in today’s polit­i­cal cli­mate than ben­e­fits reform, even though the lat­ter is as des­per­ate­ly need­ed as the for­mer. With all of those real­i­ties con­sid­ered, it prob­a­bly only makes sense to fault her for not touch­ing on inter­sec­tion­al­i­ty, the eas­i­est of the things she left out to rec­og­nize and include. Those pres­sures and Clin­ton’s efforts to speak to a cul­ture she is like­ly still learn­ing, not some kind of bad motive, prob­a­bly explain the speech’s flaws. Her choice to tell the sto­ry about Christo­pher Reeves and share the quote that “ ‘we all have val­ue’ ” is hard to char­ac­ter­ize as a rejec­tion of peo­ple whose val­ue is oth­er than economic.

Clin­ton is try­ing to pick up a lan­guage that is not her own. While she stum­bled over some of the fin­er nuances that take many peo­ple time to grasp, she got enough of the mes­sage across to show her inter­est in and under­stand­ing of where we are and where we want to go. She knows that we excel and con­tribute to soci­ety today, despite the obsta­cles we have to over­come. She knows we want bar­ri­ers removed so that more of us can “lead rich, full lives[.]” She knows that, when we work, we want real pay. She knows we want “respect.” If her past behav­ior and request for pol­i­cy sug­ges­tions are pre­dic­tive of her will­ing­ness to learn, her abil­i­ty to express those points, and to advo­cate for peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, will only grow. Her choice to learn as much as she has and bring nation­al atten­tion to dis­abil­i­ty issues is an his­toric moment for the dis­abil­i­ty com­mu­ni­ty. If she is elect­ed and con­tin­ues to show inter­est in our issues, her pres­i­den­cy will be, too.