I know we’re just getting to know each other but let’s just get this out of the way early; I’m a political junkie. I’m a policy wonk. I am endlessly fascinated by how elections are conducted; not just the candidates and issues but the actual workings of an election. I’m a flaming liberal proud to have voted twice for Barack Obama. I devote my time and money to the candidates and campaigns that I believe in.
I was bitterly disappointed in President Obama’s Inaugural speech.
Our president is a brilliant speaker, capable of soaring oration and moving passages of emotive commentary. Within minutes of his speech, I saw quotes from his speech in my twitter stream; memes shared on my Facebook wall over and over by my friends working on immigration rights, women’s rights and LGBTQ rights, environmental issues and gun control. Yet, nothing that represented me as a person with a disability. We remain invisible and forgotten.
President Obama did mention “disability” once in his speech. He referenced a by-gone era with:
For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty, and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn. We do not believe that in this country, freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us, at any time, may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. (emphasis mine)
Mr. President, parents of children with disability far too often still have nowhere to turn. Adults with disabilities far too often have nowhere to turn and we’re not nearly as cute and sympathetic as children. This is not a part of our past; it is very much our present reality. And, as noted, anyone at any time can suddenly find themselves living with disability.
That was it; a single, inaccurate reference to the parents
of a child with disabilities and our national duty to charity and stewardship. When Obama spoke of current and future civil rights struggles PWD were not at all mentioned.
It is now our generation's task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law - for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country. Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm.
PWD have an unemployment rate of roughly 59 percent compared to the rest of the nation's 7.8 percent. All too often, PWD are forced to live in nursing homes because appropriate housing is non-existent, or worse, healthcare providers find it more efficient and cost-effective to warehouse us than allow us lives of dignity and autonomy. The key legislation that protects our rights, the ADA, is being steadily eroded and outright ignored. Disproportionate numbers of people with disabilities are forced to live in poverty in order to have needed health coverage.
We are as marginalized, if not more so, than any of the other groups the President acknowledged that day. And yet our ongoing civil rights struggle did not warrant a mention.
Of course I took to Facebook and twitter to pontificate. My friend, Victoria, offered her usual keen observation served up with a generous helping of snark, “you people” is a running joke between us:
We all know money talks in politics. If you (pl.) don't "mobilize" and make a show of strength, then you will continue to be marginalized. If you (pl.) can't organize like the NRA or NARAL -- you will forever be marginalized. No one will pay attention until politicians believe you are a powerful constituency who will vote with your wallets and your voice. Now...maybe there IS a huge PWD lobby and I am unaware --if there is, and I am unaware...then that lobby isn't doing a very good job.
She’s right. While PWD constitute the single largest minority bloc at roughly 1-in-3 Americans, only 30 percent of us vote. Contrast that with the significantly smaller bloc representing senior citizens who make up 1-in-6 of our population but they’re considered “high efficacy voters.” About 80 percent of seniors vote. Piss off the grannies in Washington, you’re in big trouble. Gut the ADA, who notices or cares?
No one needs to pay attention to us until we make them. In our defense, in many cases before HAVA (Help America Vote Act
), we were unable to vote as polling places and for many PWD, the ballots themselves were often inaccessible. There has been a long-established culture of disenfranchising people with disabilities at the ballot box.
But it’s changing thanks to HAVA. I have worked as an election board trainer for several years now. Voters can now cast their ballot by sip and puff technology and vote by touchscreen and tactile keypads when they can’t read or mark the standard ballot; thus ensuring a private and autonomous vote. In the states where such options are legal, voters take advantage of mail-in ballots and curb-side voting. We have no excuses not to vote. It is in our very best interests to participate in the political process.
It’s easy to put something as devastating to lives of PWD as Chained CPI
on the negotiating table when you don’t fear the backlash at the next election.
My hero and role model of disability activism, Justin Dart
said, "Vote as if your life depends upon it, because it does." Another favorite Dartism: "If you don't vote, you don't count."
Victoria also quipped: “That is what happens when you don't see the whole of America around you. Has he nominated anyone with any disability to any position???” Another friend asked, “Who would be Secretary of Gimp?”
No matter how I search, I do not see appropriate representation of PWD in civic leadership. It’s little wonder we are under served. We don’t have a seat at the table. We remain an afterthought.
Need further proof? The Rehabilitation Services Act, key legislation that funds our special education, back-to-work, and modifications programs has not been substantially revised in ten years. The department that oversees rehab services
has been without the leadership of its Commissioner for far too long. This impacts your ability to receive vital services.
Spinal cord injury doesn’t even have its own Medicare reimbursement code, which impacts our healthcare coverage, number of rehab days and therapy visits and assistive equipment. Clearly, we are no one’s priority.
Since the President’s inauguration, I’ve watched the Facebook memes flit through my newsfeed with quotes from his speech. My feminist friends working on fair pay for women, my LGBTQ brothers and sisters, my friends working on immigration issues and my Dreamers proudly display quotes related to their civil rights struggles, heartened by this president’s words. Where’s mine? Is the ongoing civil rights struggle of PWD even noticed in Washington?
Political analysts tell me over and over again that this is one of the great second term speeches. That it will be studied and analyzed for generations. When history looks back at this president’s inaugural speech, what will they learn about PWD?
I will remember this speech as a soaring oration, full of hope and promise -- for everyone but those who look like me.
(PHOTO: Capitol Crawl
If you think being missed in this speech is really no big deal, ask any woman, immigration activist or member of our LGBTQ community how important it was to be acknowledged in the President’s speech and how they would feel if they had been excluded.
Inauguration Day also marked the birthday of Reverend Martin Luther King, who said, “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” As long as I am invisible, as long as I am an afterthought in the minds of our civic leaders, the struggle for all who may be marginalized will continue.
Clearly, the civil rights work to achieve full equality for PWD continues. Back to work... But that boulder we're shouldering up the hill feels a little heavier since I now wonder if my president has my back like I've had his.
© 2013 Jennifer Longdon