Last night I attended a political event where candidates running for state office in Tennessee could speak about their platform and answer questions from their constituents. During the planning stages of the event, I was selected to ask a question about disability rights to the two Democratic gubernatorial candidates who would be in attendance- Karl Dean and Craig Fitzhugh. I thought carefully about what I might ask them and decided to lob them what I thought would be a softball question with a big playing field. I knew other people would be asking about health care, so I wanted to steer them in a different direction regarding disability. As I was introduced, I approached the microphone, rehearsing the statistics I wanted to share in my head. "Almost 1 million people in Tennessee are living with a disability. About half of those individuals can and want to work, yet only 27% are in the labor force. And the ones who are in the labor force only make about 72% of the median income. As governor, what will you do to improve the educational and economic opportunities for people living with a disability in Tennessee?".
It's a big, hard question, but one that should be easy to give a two-minute broad response to if you've thought about disability issues at all. I opened the door for them to talk about education or jobs or legislation. They could have talked about inclusion. They could have told a story about somebody they know who is disabled. They could have talked about legislative measures they've helped pass or would like to see passed. They could have talked about a program in our state that is doing great work for and with disabled people. They could have committed to working with disability rights activists and continuing to learn about the many issues that people with disabilities face in our state. But that's not what they did.
Instead, the fumbled over non-answers struggling to even form coherent sentences. Almost 15% of their constituents have a disability and yet neither candidate had a single meaningful talking point about disability rights. Karl Dean has been the Mayor of Nashville for over 10 years and Craig Fitzhugh has served in Tennessee's House of Representatives for 24 years. I have a hard time believing that neither of these men have been confronted with issues facing disabled Tennesseans and yet they had nothing meaningful to say about how they will advocate for those individuals and families. Assuming they have heard about these issues, their lackluster answers tell me that they just don't care all that much. Even worse, they knew that somebody was going to ask them about disability rights because they received a list of question topics before the event, and they still failed to provide an adequate response.
I have a lot of grace for political candidates. What a strange thing campaigning is and they are expected to be knowledgeable about so many issues. It's just not possible to have an intimate and thorough knowledge about all of the issues. I would have been so impressed had either candidate said "I'm embarrassed to say that I don't know a lot about disability issues in our state, but I am committed to learn and to surround myself with disability rights advocates and experts who can help guide me on these issues". I would have had a lot of respect had either candidate approached me after the event to say "You know, I'm not really satisfied with how I answered your question". But again, that's not what they did. They left me with their bumbling, confusing, and buzzword filled responses.
I will be writing personal letters to both Mr. Dean and Mr. Fitzhugh, urging them to do better in this area and giving them some actionable ideas, but I also wanted to make a statement to all political candidates. Even though disability rights is not a "hot topic" for a campaign, it's an incredibly important moral and economic issue that candidates need to have a nuanced understanding of. It's a civil rights issue that touches every area of our political and social life and if you don't have a single coherent talking point about disability issues, it's because you aren't paying attention.
Here are some actionable items for you to consider and to learn more about (portions of this list are adapted from Karin Willison's article entitled "Why Disability Representation In Politics Matters More than Ever"):
- Pass important laws like the Disability Integration Act to guarantee and improve in-home care services that empower people to live independently
- Change laws that favor nursing homes over independent living, and ensure a skilled workforce by guaranteeing high wages for home care workers.
- Expand the ABLE Act, so it is open to all people with disabilities and allows people to save more money each year for important expenses, without risking their benefits.
- Fight for jobs for people with disabilities; a group whose unemployment rate is far worse than other groups
- Fight for educational opportunities, not only in the public school system but also in higher education, and advocate for and legislate inclusive classroom settings
- Equip teachers to work with disabled children, provide school counselors and other resources in every school, and pay these professionals an appropriate wage
- Fund programs that train employers and educators about inclusion and accessibility and accomodations
- Reform “work incentives” that are supposed to help people with disabilities to work and still receive essential health benefits like Medicare and in-home care, but actually make being employed overly complicated
- Add to and enforce the ADA , ensuring that all spaces are accessible
- Create more affordable and accessible housing options, so people with disabilities can find a place to live and older adults can remain in their homes as they age
- Invest in medical technologies and scientific research
- Ensure health care and medical technologies are accessible and affordable for people with disabilities
- Reform our justice system, where people with developmental and mental health disabilities are disproportionately harmed
- Recognize that many people with disabilities also belong to other marginalized groups and that their struggle is specific to their intersecting identities
See how easy it was to come up with not just one, but thirteen, actionable talking points about disability rights? And that's just barely scratching the surface and took very little effort on my part to generate. Not having a single meaningful actionable talking point is not okay. Disabled constituents are just as important and valuable as every other constituent and politicians and political candidates have a duty and a moral obligation to answer to the many issues facing this community. I won't stand by and accept messy answers and inaction. I won't give candidates a pass for not knowing about this critical body of legislative work to be done. I won't sit down and be quiet and accept their non-answers. I will continue to demand better and to hold them accountable. Political candidates, do better.