Disability Candidate? Much More Work To Do

I applaud Biden for being the only candidate who outlined and released a disability plan during the primaries. But it is time to hold his feet to the fire.

joe biden disability disabled
Joe Biden speaking about the Obama-Biden administration’s Cancer Moonshot Initiative in Boston in 2016. (Edward M. Kennedy Institute)

“My new president just said disability on TV in front of millions of people. That matters!”

My husband, who was also watching the same TV screen as I was when President-Elect Joe Biden gave his recent acceptance speech, didn’t seem to notice the reference. So I put the TV on pause to spell it out for him. 

I cried when Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 Presidential election. Then I cried some more when he said, “We must make the promise of this country for everybody no matter their race, their ethnicity, their identity or their disability.”  

I was elated because he acknowledged the disability community in his speech just four years after President Donald Trump mocked a disabled New York Times reporter, proposed billions in cuts to Medicaid and tried to defund the Special Olympics. 

I’ve been a lifelong advocate for the Deaf and disability community. I am the hearing child of Deaf parents. I’ve taught Special Education, been an American Sign Language interpreter and am the caretaker for my 98-year-old father who has dementia.  I also navigate the world in a different way than most because of a recent mobility disability. I understand how living with a disability makes people simultaneously feel unseen and much too visible. 

The Centers for Disease Control report that 61 million Americans identify as having a disability. That’s 26 percent of the United States population—more than one in four people. Yet this is a community that is marginalized and does not get attention as a political force.  

Politicians do not try to woo us. They don’t make stump speeches to listen to our agenda and promise reform. To be sure, our voting block has been difficult to coalesce for a variety of reasons, but social media has started to changed that. 

After Biden’s speech, Jake Tapper of CNN used his commentator’s desk to amplify that recognition and spoke about #CripTheVote, a nonpartisan Twitter campaign designed to engage voters and lawmakers with the issues that affect the disability community. 

These public acknowledgments gave our constituency visibility and power. The mention was a tribute to the lengths that Deaf and disabled people went to cast ballots in spite of physical difficulties, inaccessibility, barriers and suppression. The joy on Twitter was overwhelming and viewed as an influential development in the disability political scene.

For all the celebrating, it’s also important to note that the Deaf and disabled candidates did not get the attention they deserved in down-ballot races. News organizations celebrated LGBTQ and BIPOC candidates who had been elected—as is necessary—but it was disappointing to see candidates with disabilities ignored in the election results. 

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David Ortiz, the first openly bi, wheelchair user was elected to the Colorado State Legislator. Garnet Coleman, who identifies as having Bipolar Disorder was reelected to Texas State District 147. Muffy David and Jen Longdon, both wheelchair users, were voted into in the Idaho and Arizona State House respectively.  Dylan Dailor, who is autistic, won his race in the New York State Assembly. They as well as a dozen other disabled candidates deserve the same recognition. 

joe biden disability disabled
Colorado state legislator David Ortiz is one of several disabled candidates who won election or reelection this November. (Victory Fund)

I applaud Biden for being the only candidate who outlined and released a disability plan during the primaries which covered health care, education, transportation, civil rights, criminal justice, home and community-based services, and long-term services. I am grateful that his campaign had captioned and interpreted content.

But it is time to hold his feet to the fire. The stakes are high for the Deaf and disabled citizens when it comes to the fragile Affordable Care Act.

And the work starts now. Today. Many of us following #CripTheVote were flabbergasted when Biden appointed Ezekiel Emanuel to his 13-member COVID-19 Advisory board.  

In 2014, Emanuel wrote in the Atlantic, “Why I Hope To Die at 75,” an article has widely criticized by the Deaf and disabled community because he argued that “living too long renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived.” Emanuel goes on to enumerate the ways: “It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world.”  

This smacks of an ableist world view where people with disabilities are viewed as less valuable, inferior to the non-disabled or even seen as expendable.  Most strikingly and eerily prescient, Emanuel wrote, that if “there were to be a flu pandemic, a younger person who has yet to live a complete life ought to get the vaccine or any antiviral drugs.” 

Biden’s appointment has raised protests because Emanuel will be a health care advisor who will be influencing policy during the greatest public health crisis in a century. Many wonder how decisions around support and services will affect people with disabilities, a group who are at a higher risk than most.  As the pandemic gets worse, the fear of health care rationing becomes very real. 

Up until this election, the Deaf and disabled voting block has been largely ignored by politicians. Now that they know we are here, the call to action is to make them aware of what we want.

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Arlene Malinowski Ph.D is a playwright, actor and teaching artist. Her new solo show “A Little Bit Not Normal” chronicles her journey through depression and naming it, claiming it and standing to be counted.