But before I get into what journalists like Drabold can learn from Ne'eman's piece for future coverage of disability in this election, I want to fully unpack the problems in Drabold's piece for Time. First off, I should say that not everything in this article is bad. Among the good things Drabold does in this article include seeking out quotes from members of the Democratic party with long records on disability rights, such as Sen. Tom Harkin and Tony Coelho, paying attention to the specific people with disabilities who spoke at the convention (including Anastasia Somoza, Dynah Haubert, and Ryan Moore), and noting that the approved Democratic platform includes "35 mentions of disability rights in 19 separate sections." But ultimately all that is framed by Drabold's incredibly problematic argument that the current focus of the Democratic party on disability rights is all merely part of a political attack on Donald Trump in the wake of his notorious mocking of a disabled reporter back in November.
Now, while I don't dispute that Democrats (mainly via the Clinton Super PAC Priorities USA) have taken advantage of Trump's ableism to attack his character (for example, see these two major ads: "Grace" and "Dante") I do think it is patently false that responding to Trump is the sum total of the "political reason" behind the increased visibility of disability issues and people with disabilities at the 2016 DNC as Drabold seems to suggest in both the following paragraph as well as the article's very title (which primes the reader as to how to interpret the article) [See NOTE 1]:
"But there was a political reason for the focus on disability rights as well. Republican nominee Donald Trump’s mocking of a New York Times reporter in November who suffers from a congenital joint condition has given Democrats a way to paint Trump as unsympathetic and even cruel. Video of the incident was shown from monitors at the convention at points."
Now this is where Ari Ne'eman's excellent piece "Disability Rights took the spotlight at the Democratic convention this year" comes in. After discussing the increased visibility of disability issues and people with disabilities at the DNC, and suggesting that "[s]ome of this may reflect a longstanding personal interest in the topic by the candidate" -- in reference to Clinton's work on behalf of children with disabilities with the Children's Defense Fund in the 70s-80s -- Ne'eman goes on to posit that this increased visibility "also reflects some important changing dynamics in America’s disability politics." In the remainder of his article, Ne'eman then manages to reorient the story from the overly simple (and in fact, patently untrue) one that journalists like Drabold have told -- about how politicians treat people with disabilities -- to one that includes a robust discussion of how people with disabilities have actively intervened in the political arena and pushed politicians to adopt concrete and specific positions on disability issues. Moreover, Ne'eman provides crucial context to the current moment by suggesting how both those interventions and the political stakes of disability have changed dramatically over the past quarter-century.
Of the "changing dynamics in America's disability politics" that Ne'eman discusses, I think the most important and yet neglected one for journalists to consider more deeply might be what he calls the political maturation of the disability community. For a variety of reasons that I don't have space to get into here (but might discuss in a later post), until recently the disability community has admittedly not had the kind of organized political presence and strategy (especially on the national level) that other minority groups have had, and as such, political progress on disability issues has often been quite slow and uneven. But over the past decade people with disabilities have organized in new ways and ascended to new positions throughout the federal government and their sustained efforts have resulted in a vastly different political landscape around disability issues which folks in the mainstream are only now beginning to fully recognize. One particularly visible example of this is the unprecedented number of disability activists that have been to the White House in the past year to discuss a similarly unprecedented range of disability issues in events organized by Maria Town, the White House Associate Director for the Office of Public Engagement and Disability Community Liaison. Other examples from this current campaign season include how people with disabilities have organized and articulated demands in previously unimaginable ways, using hashtags like #CripTheVote to coordinate Twitter discussions among voters with disabilities on issues pertinent to them or for the first time ever pushing all candidates to take public positions on disability issues as the RespectAbility questionnaire did, or most recently, pushing the Democratic Party to adopt language supporting the principle behind the recently proposed Disability Integration Act (if not the act itself) in its official Party platform [see NOTE 2 for more detail on that]. Thus, while disability might be more visible in this election in part as a vehicle for attacking Trump--such as in Priority USA's attack ads which have admittedly relied on tired stereotypes of disability to one degree or another--it is also getting play because people with disabilities have organized and articulated concrete policy demands in unprecedented ways, such that a major candidate like Clinton has felt compelled to incorporated into her platform, as David Perry outlines here, and which I would say is a pretty major political accomplishment.
Ultimately, there are two lessons that I hope Drabold and other journalists might take from my critique and Ne'eman's article. The first lesson is that people with disabilities should not be automatically assumed as devoid of agency, as mere pawns to be used by others in their own battles. That is, when discussing people with disabilities and the disability community you should always presume their competence as political actors. The second lesson, which in part depends on absorbing the first, is that if you want to talk about disability you need to actually do the research. Reaching out to a few relevant folks for quotes and relying on your own uninformed insights is just not enough. Had Drabold assumed the competence of people with disabilities as political actors and done a tiny bit of research he would have quickly come across many of the examples I mention above and been forced to frame his story of disability at the DNC very differently.
I know it seems as though I am belaboring the point, but I strongly believe that the mere coverage of disability rights is just not enough and we can't allow ourselves to be placated by it. Especially not when that coverage of disability rights ignores the agency of people with disabilities themselves.
Twenty-six years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, I think it is about time that everyone starts recognizing that people with disabilities are not pawns in anyone else's political game. And Trump didn't put disability rights center stage at the 2016 DNC -- we did.
NOTE 2: See the following sentence in the section "Guaranteeing Rights for People with Disabilities" on p. 19 of the 2016 Democratic Party Platform: "We will protect and expand the right of Americans with disabilities to get the accommodations and support they need to live in integrated community settings." That sentence did not appear in the original draft that was circulated but was rather added after an organized calls for it spearheaded by the National Disability Leadership Alliance: