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Advocates: Clinton’s Speech on Disabilities Fell Short in One Big Way

Ally Boguhn

“The disability voting bloc is so large because it is so intersectional,” Gregg Beratan, a disability activist, said. “If you ignore the intersectionality of the disability community, then you’re leaving out so many within it.”

People living with disabilities “are too often invisible, overlooked, and undervalued,” Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton told a crowd in Orlando on Wednesday.

The former secretary of state’s address outlined a series of policies she would put in place to address rights for people with disabilities and provide more opportunity for those with disabilities, including raising the subminimum wage, working to make higher education more accessible to communities of those living with disabilities, and ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Clinton acknowledged that “nearly one in five Americans lives with a disability” and that not all are visible. “If you don’t know you know someone with a disability, I promise you, you do. But their disability is just one part of who they are,” she said.

Disability rights and justice advocates, however, said Clinton’s speech didn’t address the intersections of oppression that faces by many people with disabilities.

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“In her speech she talked about systemic racism, and that was great, but she’s got to realize that there are disabled people like myself who are of color and disabled, and are battling [the two] simultaneously,” Vilissa Thompson, founder of Ramp Your Voice!, a site promoting self advocacy and empowerment for people with disabilities, said in an interview Thursday with Rewire.

“For [Clinton] or any campaign to really talk about disability, we have to really talk about the intersectionality of disabilities,” Thomson continued, adding that having different identities affects “our quality of life and … our opportunities to have” access to things like education and health care.

Gregg Beratan, a disability activist, noted that candidates should address the rights of those with disabilities from an intersectional framework. “The disability voting bloc is so large because it is so intersectional,” he said during an interview with Rewire. “If you ignore the intersectionality of the disability community, then you’re leaving out so many within it.”

Rebecca Cokley, executive director of the National Council on Disability, told Rewire that though the rights of those with disabilities are an issue that impact many kinds of people, much of the media coverage of disabilities this year “has been focused largely on white disabled people, when our movement encompasses every demographic of the United States. We have LGBT folks, we have African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Asians—there is not a community where disability is not present.”

To Lydia Brown, a disability justice advocate and educator who is disabled, Clinton’s speech “falls into the dangerous trap of tying our worth to our productivity and economic value.”

“Clinton acknowledged the recent police killings of Terence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott, but failed to mention that Scott was Black and disabled, as are many of those most likely to be targeted by police violence,” Brown said. “Disability is more than just one aspect of a person’s identity or experience—it connects with all parts of our lived experience, but political power often only belongs to white people with disabilities who are able to gain economic advantage while disabled people of color face compounded lack of political, social, and economic power.”

Clinton asked people to reach out to her campaign with input about how she can better addresses the rights of those with disabilities, explaining that her ideas “are just a start.”

“We’re working with advocates to come up with even more,” Clinton said. “If you’ve got an idea, we want to hear it … because we are really welcoming this debate.”

Advocates swiftly took to Twitter to answer that call using the hashtags #Ideas4Hillary and #CripTheVote to weigh in on how the presidential candidate could better address issues impacting their community.

Beratan, who is an organizer for the nonpartisan #CripTheVote campaign to engage voters on disability issues, told Rewire that Clinton’s call for ideas was “refreshing simply because we’re used to being ignored … or having politicians tell us what we need.”

“My coworkers and I put out this call to give her the ideas she asked for,” Beratan said. The results were “so many wonderful policy initiatives,” he added, such as increasing access to information technology services and passing the Disabilities Integration Act.

Using social media to weigh in on the issue “provides access for people with disabilities in a way that we’ve never had before,” Cokley said. The megaphone social media provides is helping people get “the message that they ignore us at their peril.”

Wednesday’s speech wasn’t the first time that Clinton publicly spoke about people with disabilities. During a campaign stop in Wisconsin in March, she condemned the subminimum wage, which allows employers to pay people with disabilities less than the minimum wage.

The Democratic National Convention offered a national platform for those living with disabilities.

While it may be notable that the rights of those with disabilities are being discussed on a national level, having a presidential candidate discuss these issues “should not be a surprise,” Thompson said. “It should be the norm. And I’m glad she did talk about it—somebody needs to talk about it. But it should not be the exception. It should be the rule.”

“We’re listening for candidates on both side of the aisle to talk to us,” Cokley said. “Talk about our issues. Refer to us as the disability community and not call us ‘special needs’—because we are a community. Our needs are not special. Our needs are the same as everyone else’s.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misspelled Gregg Beratan’s name. We regret the error.

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