If you listened to President Obama’s victory speech the other night in Chicago, and listened very carefully, you heard this:
“I believe we can keep the promise of our founding, the idea that if you’re willing to work hard, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from or what you look like or where you love (ph). It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, abled, disabled, gay or straight. (Cheers, applause.) You can make it here in America if you are willing to try…”
Obama has inserted the word “disabled” in his campaign stump speech since the 2008 campaign. I think he means it, or at least his speechwriters mean it. Not that repeating the word is a magic pill for social change. The progress of Americans with disabilities in his first term certainly didn’t make any headlines. In fact, the headlines were more along the lines of “(California Governor) Jerry Brown’s Budget Cuts Devastate the Disabled.” Those years, if anything, were the peak years of the anti-disabled backlash, with services cut, politicians openly opposing the ADA, and employment figures for workers with disabilities actually getting worse. According to NBC, the official unemployment rate of the disabled work force went up in the third quarter of 2012, from 12.9 to 13.7%. This doesn’t count, of course, disabled workers who gave up looking for a job or never even tried in the first place. And if you collect SSDI, as is well-known, you can’t really earn much without losing benefits.
But this election cycle seemed much different than any that came before, and not just because Tammy Duckworth, a double amputee, won a seat in Congress from Illinois’s 8th District. That alone is important, for sure – the first woman with a disability ever elected to the House of Representatives, the first Congress person born in Thailand, and a hell of a poster person for true grit.
In 2012, beyond Ms. Duckworth, the big news is the rise of the outside voter – Hispanic, black, Asian, and gay, to start with – who is fast becoming the inside voter. Not only did Team Romney make no play for these statistical minorities, they seemed to mock them. As Maureen Dowd wrote in the New York Times, “Romney and Tea Party loonies dismissed half the country as chattel and moochers who did not belong in their “traditional” America.” That 47% remark was killer. It seemed to rile up the very voters the Republicans were trying to ignore.
Now, who has been considered the moocher class since the dawn of time? The disabled! These poor, helpless, wounded souls need constant handouts from the government and special treatment for everything from parking places to bathroom stalls. When the governor described the 47% as those “who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it,” he wasn’t just talking about welfare queens and shifty-eyed illegals who can’t even learn the language. He was also talking about you.
I have no idea who the “disabled vote” favored in this election, since that statistic is not readily available to lazy, on-line stat-mongers like me. But two big shifts in popular sentiment may be a great boon to Americans with disabilities, if they seize the moment. One, outsider voters exercising their power in, say, marriage equality victories in Maine, Minnesota, Maryland, and Washington, among other progressive trends, could mean real social change for minorities is in the air, something not seen since the 1960’s. And two, the general election results mean that a majority of voting Americans no longer see the government as the problem, but as an ally in the quest for a better life.
It’s not there for mooching. It’s there for assistance. The rest is up to the people who are willing to try.
FOOTNOTE: Two highly recommended movies: "The Sessions," starring Helen Hunt and John Hawkes, in theatres now. And "Any Day Now," starring Alan Cumming, a truly moving story about a gay couple in the late 1970's who try to adopt an abused kid with down's syndrome. It opens on December 14th.
© 2012 Allen Rucker |