Back to Basics

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Andrew Pulrang

I missed the first ten minutes of Sunday night’s Presidential Debate. #Sorry/NotSorry. I guess missing ten minutes wasn’t enough. If I had managed to miss the first half hour, it might have felt more like a normal debate-watching experience.

What is there to say? Not much. Moderators Anderson Cooper and Martha Radaatz asked some substantive questions. The candidates seemed to at least try to answer them, while trying to land the rhetorical blows they were obviously there inflict on each other. Cooper and Radaatz dug in a few times and tried to sort through the garbage.

The consensus is that after nearly coming unglued in the first half hour while answering for his ugly comments on women, Trump ended up doing slightly better than he did in the first debate … not counting the fact that a lot of his facts were verifiably wrong or nonsensical. As for Clinton, she basically kept her cool, which has to count as an accomplishment of some kind.

Once again, we got a few welcomed mentions of disabled people, a few indirect allusions to related disability issues, and the usual dose of casual ableism neither candidate seems to even recognize. Despite voting on the OpenDebate website for a number of great disability-related questions, disabled voters heard none of them. While Clinton again came out ahead in mentioning disabled people, she didn’t cover any new ground.

Maybe that’s enough said about Debate Number Two.

There’s just one more debate to go, on October 19, and Election day is less than a month away. Now seems like a good time to take a step back and ask what we know, and don’t know, about how the candidates would handle disability issues as President.

Hillary Clinton

Clinton is pretty much the only current candidate saying anything about disabled voters or disability issues. That means we have some idea of what kind of President she would be for disabled people. Here’s what we know:

One of her earliest professional experiences involved helping the Children’s Defense Fund build the case for the first nation-wide law requiring all states and districts to educate kids with disabilities.

She has had a long and, shall we say, varied career trying to make big changes in contentious but critical policy issues. Like most people who try to do big things, Clinton has had big failures … like her early ’90s attempt to enact a sweeping health care reform plan … and significant victories … like passing SCHIP, which helped provide health insurance to millions of children.

Clinton has offered many detailed policy proposals on disability issues. By and large, they aim in the general direction disability activists want to go. Her autism plan is designed to help people with autism, not just their parents and not just scientists trying to “cure” it. Early in the campaign she endorsed the Disability Integration Act and called for ending Subminimum Wage. The Democratic Convention gave unprecedented voice to a diverse array of disabled people who, while obviously speaking for Hillary, also clearly spoke for themselves. She devoted a whole campaign day to focusing on disability issues, which as I write this doesn’t sound like much … one day, big deal … but it really is.

More broadly, Hillary Clinton obviously has a progressive’s belief that government can and should help all Americans succeed. At the same time, she clearly believes that “the system” is basically sound, and just needs tweaking, rebuilding, and maybe a new feature or two. In other words, she doesn’t believe we need a whole new system, or that the current system is fundamentally corrupt. That’s mainly what her Primary battles with Bernie Sanders were about.

What we don’t know is where Clinton would be willing to compromise when opposing forces come into play on our most important priorities. How hard would she push for the shift away from nursing homes and towards home care, possibly opposed by the nursing home lobby and health care unions? Would she follow through aggressively on banning subminimum wage, or bow to pressure from sheltered workshops and anxious parents? Would she consider structural changes to make employment truly feasible for disabled people, or stick to more low-cost, low-reward “awareness” campaigns.

Love her, despise her, or “meh” … we pretty much know what we are going to deal with on disability matters if Hillary Clinton becomes President. It may not be a restful four to eight years, but we have a pretty good idea of how to work with someone like Clinton, and at least we won’t have to go back to grade school-level disability awareness with her.

Before we get to the man of the hour, so to speak, let’s take a quick look at the “third party” candidates:

Jill Stein

For the Green Party candidate, disability seems to be all about causes, because that fits into her view that pollution, chemicals, pharmaceutical companies, and the modern industrial economy is the cause of all problems. She may be partially right, but this view leaves out any meaningful ideas on how to help actual disabled people with their actual problems.

Gary Johnson

Gary Johnson is the Libertarian candidate. Libertarians believe citizens should have maximum personal freedom and virtually no government support or assistance other than fire, police, and national defense. Everything else should be provided by free markets. Parts of that probably sound good to at least some disabled people, too. On the other hand, our needs are not popular or particularly profitable, and very little of the progress we have made in recent years has come from voluntary charity. So far, Johnson has said virtually nothing about disability policy.

And now, what is the deal with Donald Trump? Here’s what we know:

We know almost nothing about his views on disability policy. We don’t know if he’s ever heard of a thing called “disability policy,” or that he’s aware that disability is more than a collection of diseases, or reason for more annoying regulations. Aside from holding disabled veterans in some sort of esteem, Trump has said nothing at all about what he would want to do with disability issues as President.

We do know that Donald Trump is not the kind of guy who appreciates difference or diversity. He thinks it’s normal to be snarky, creepy, or dismissive of people based on their appearance. That’s really the issue with him mocking the disabled reporter Serge Kovaleski. It’s not that on a day last winter Trump hurt disabled people’s feelings, but that he showed us he regards anyone who’s different as fair game for ridicule, or worse.

Trump has also made questioning Hillary Clinton’s physical fitness for the Presidency a key strategy in his campaign’s final months. He doesn’t explicitly say “she’s disabled and therefore unqualified,” but that’s the subtext when he talks about her “stamina” and shows clips of her coughing or needing help going up some steps. If that’s not ableism … disability prejudice … then the word has no meaning.

The weird thing is, Donald Trump apparently has some kind of instinct for knowing when people are feeling angry, disappointed, and ignored. In theory, that could translate into some kind of rapport with disabled people, many of whom have good reason to feel angry, disappointed, and, God knows, ignored. Why hasn’t Trump at least tried to reach out, even with some admiring words and a paper-thin promise of better days ahead? As far as I know, he didn’t even respond to Clinton’s day highlighting disability issues. It’s pretty strange. Maybe he really does think of disabled people as pathetic, silly, and unimportant.

In fact, if our lives and livelihoods weren’t actually on the line, it would probably be fascinating find out how Donald Trump would deal with disability issues as President. Would he ignore us and let the status quo chug along? Would he use us to try to prove he’s a good guy after all? Or, would he take the United Kingdom option and launch a crusade against “benefits scroungers?” What would actually happen if he successfully repealed Obamacare? Where disability is concerned, Trump is more frightening for what he hasn’t said about disability than about what he has.

There’s still a few weeks to go before Election Day, November 8 if you need the reminder. There’s still time to learn a little more about what the disability community might be facing in the coming years, and hopefully we’ll have a little more to work with as we cast that vote.

Contact: Andrew Pulrang