News Analysis: Disability and Politics

Minority voters have again received considerable attention from the nation’s political parties this election cycle, but voters with disabilities still remain largely invisible on the national stage. The situation isn’t likely to change soon. However, disability leaders believe the trend can and will be eventually reversed.

Mark Johnson, Shepherd Center advocacy director, says the disability community hasn’t evolved much politically because of long-held paternalistic attitudes toward people with disabilities that have caused many to relegate themselves to the shadows of political life. “They don’t bring attention to an issue because they’ll bring attention to themselves,” Johnson says.

Another issue is people with disabilities don’t usually grow up with disability culture and aren’t exposed to it in school. Johnson is optimistic that the 25th ADA anniversary in 2015 will provide a unique opportunity for change. “It’s an opportunity to share a lot more of this history,” Johnson says, “and to get it integrated into the educational system and have people understand it’s a movement and not a telethon.”

Recently, efforts have been made to begin changing the tide. Last September’s National Forum on Disability Issues was a rare opportunity for people with disabilities to interact with the presidential campaigns. It wasn’t perfect but it was progress. “It would have been better to have had the candidates there — or even the vice presidential candidates — but at least we had representatives from the campaigns,“ says Kelly Buckland, executive director of the National Council on Independent Living.

Another hopeful sign is the two–year-old National Disability Leadership Alliance, a collaborative effort between 14 national disability organizations. NDLA members meet monthly to strategize on important issues. Johnson says the recent protest against Goodwill demonstrates NDLA’s strength because it brought together once-rival organizations like the American Council of the Blind and National Federation of the Blind.
This type of cooperation makes Johnson optimistic for the future. “I think we’ll get to the point where people (members) will understand that we don’t have to agree, but we have to be involved,” Johnson says.
These efforts may gradually bring political attention to people with disabilities. However, Buckland says it’s essential to involve the younger generation. “I think they have a whole new set of fresh ideas because they come from a rights-bearing generation,“ Buckland says. He adds that new ideas will be important as the disability community moves forward. This will be key as people with disabilities try to get the long-awaited political attention that has been so elusive.

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