July 20, 2019

The Forgotten 56 Million With Disabilities

A silhouette of a woman in a wheelchair and a man with a prosthetic leg standing to support each other. The concept of people with disabilities

All the Democratic presidential candidates made clear in their recent debates that, if elected, they would pay greater attention to the weak and vulnerable of our society — whether that means suffering migrants at our borders, people who lost their savings on medical bills, victims of gun violence, working-class Americans who are victims of corporate profiteering, undocumented immigrants forced to live in the shadows, and so on.

It was a show of extraordinary social compassion. Candidates fell all over themselves to exhibit that compassion. It seemed as if no one was left behind.

Well, no one, that is, except for the 56 million Americans with disabilities. Not one question was asked about this group; not one mention was made.

I confess that I have a deep emotional bias here. When I think of the millions in our midst who can’t walk, who can’t see, who can’t hear, who can’t speak or who simply can’t do any of the routine things so many of us take for granted, it makes my heart especially heavy.

How is it possible that they were so utterly ignored by compassionate politicians aspiring to run our country?

How is it possible that they were so utterly ignored by compassionate politicians aspiring to run our country? Put yourself in the shoes of one of those 56 million people with some form of disability. You’re watching the debate. You see progressive candidates hungry to win over voters. And yet, no one ever mentions you, your challenges or the fact that you too can bring skills and heart to contribute to the success of our nation.

According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, out of the 56 million people with disabilities, an estimated 22 million are working age (18 to 64), but only 34 percent of those are employed, some only part time and many others earning sub-minimum wages.

In other words, the great majority of people with disabilities who can work are out of work. Do the candidates have any plans or ideas for them? If so, why did they fail to mention any of them? And why did no one ask?

Maybe people with disabilities just don’t make enough noise. That may explain why, unlike protest groups around, say, gender or race, they’re not as high on the media food chain.

It’s disheartening, frankly, that high-powered news producers and celebrity anchors couldn’t think of including even one question about this significant group of Americans, most of whom are in dire need of greater support. Talk about inclusion.

The irony, of course, is that given how the candidates are so eager to win votes, you would think someone would have reminded them that 56 million is one very large number.

Maybe people with disabilities just don’t make enough noise. That may explain why, unlike protest groups around, say, gender or race, they’re not as high on the media food chain. They certainly lack the clout of powerful lobby groups.

But many activists are fighting back. One of them is Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of the advocacy group RespectAbility. If you visit its website or its political series, you’ll see how it’s keeping the candidates’ feet to the fire. In its own words:

“RespectAbility has reached out to all of the campaigns, offering a briefing and tips on how to connect with voters with disabilities. Eight Democratic presidential campaigns have participated in a briefing on this topic: (Joe) Biden, (Cory) Booker, (Jay) Inslee, (Amy) Klobuchar, (Kirsten) Gillibrand, (Bernie) Sanders, (Elizabeth) Warren and (Andrew) Yang. All viable campaigns were invited to participate in a general briefing or to schedule a briefing, and all are welcome to request a future briefing.”

Mizrahi adds: “The early days of campaigns are when candidates connect to key people and issues that can impact an entire administration and country. People with disabilities want to be a part of the democratic process, just like anyone else.”

As it did in 2016, RespectAbility has asked each campaign to respond to the same question: How will you be ensuring that your campaign fully includes people with disabilities and intentionally speaks to people with disabilities?

It’s a simple, human question. In a more just world, perhaps, it would have been an obvious question to ask at a presidential candidates’ debate. But at least it’s not too late: There will be more debates and more opportunities to speak to this forgotten group.

They may be forgotten, but they’ll be watching.