Flint, Michigan was home to Sunday night’s Democratic debate. The city received media spotlight after it was discovered that residents have been drinking lead-contaminated water. Both Democratic presidential candidates, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, have criticized government leaders for failing to take necessary action to keep residents safe and repair deteriorating pipes. Thus, the debate was poised to focus on issues such as the relationship between government and health, federal obligations to individual communities, and social programs for the underprivileged. While some of these topics were discussed, the candidates again failed to deliver for voters with disabilities.
Clinton’s responses showcased her remarkable knack for quickly recalling facts, but the substance of her responses is questionable. For example, when asked about how, as president, she would respond to the Flint lead crisis, Clinton stated she supports the actions taken by President Obama. “He called for and got accountability from the officials at the EPA to make sure the state is doing its job. He expanded Medicaid for helping kids, particularly, to get the health care they need.” As moderator Anderson Cooper revealed, only one person has resigned from the EPA, despite the Agency having always possessed requisite authority to take action without waiting for gubernatorial invitation. Moreover, for some time has Medicaid covered lead screenings in children, but these screenings are not always conducted at the individual level. Government promises that sound like solutions but have no net positive effect? At least that’s something to which people with disabilities can relate.
The greater story of the debate, however, is how Sanders repeatedly insulted members of the disability community. Perhaps Sanders was having an “off” night; some of his statements were entirely nonsensical (i.e., “what I saw literally shattered me”). Yet the preposterousness of his statements reveals that he is insufficiently familiar with the values of the disability community to spontaneously speak on relevant issues.
The first cringe-worthy statement came after being asked about racial blindspots. Sanders stated: “When you’re white, you don’t know what it’s like to be living in a ghetto. You don’t know what it’s like to be poor. You don’t know what it’s like to be hassled when you walk down the street or when you get dragged out of a car.” Obviously, his statement insults black people; living in a ghetto is not necessarily part of the “black experience.” But the statement also insults people of other races. As a disabled Caucasian, I know what it’s like to go three years without a job and be poor. I’ve gotten hassled as I roll down the street, random pedestrians patting me on the head. Many people with disabilities are intimately familiar with poverty and discrimination, regardless of race or ethnicity. In his attempt to pander, Sanders forgot this fact.
The second comment that made me squirm was Sanders’ attempt at comedy. He stated that, “if elected president, [he would] invest a lot of money into mental health. And when you watch these Republican debates, you know why we need to invest in that.” Given his partisan prejudices against Republicans, it is apparent that Sanders is wielding mental illness as an insult. Not only did Sanders’ statement perpetuate stigma against people with mental illness, but he also alludes to the stereotype that people with mental illness are dangerous individuals. Surprisingly, the media has yet to pounce Sanders in the same manner it did to Donald Trump when he was accused of mocking people with disabilities.
In conclusion, I was impressed by neither candidate during the debate. Although saying so is ironic under present circumstances, I declare residents of Flint the victors of this debate. A fair portion of questions received by candidates came directly from the people of Flint. They may not have received the answers they sought, but at least they had the opportunity to be heard. That’s more than we can say of the disability community at this point.