The word “cripple” evokes many a negative connotation, but considering it is probably the least objectionable thing said during the course of an election in which a presidential candidate regularly insults minorities including the disabled, it’s time to use what we’ve got: shock value. The debate going on about the tag is irrelevant compared to the points being made by the minds behind #CripTheVote including: welfare as an invitation into a never-ending cycle of poverty, a high unemployment rate of over 80%, the high incidents of deaths of the mentally disabled at the hands of police and even the accessibility of polling places around the country (News Flash: It isn’t just about having the right to vote, but also, the right to accessible polling places.)
The brainchild of Alice Wong (of the Disability Visibility Project), Andrew Pulrang (of Disability Thinking) and Gregg D. Beratan, PhD., their aim is to educate, empower and cultivate a conversation that forces politicians and lawmakers to take notice and create sustainable changes that will positively impact the disabled community. As the largest minority in the voting public (because of the fact disability encompasses all persons regardless of race, religion, gender, class and sexual orientation), it’s a wonder that a movement such as this has not attracted the attention of politicians before. It could be because, that with the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, politicians thought they were done with us—pulling us out only for grinning publicity pics. Whatever the reason, one thing is certain: this fight isn’t over yet, in fact, it may just be getting started.
Last week, I had the chance to ask Wong, Pulrang and Beratan some of my most pressing questions about their movement.
What are your backgrounds and how did this movement start between the three of you?
Wong: I am a sociologist by training and work at the University of California, San Francisco. I’ve always been interested in politics and current events. Gregg, Andrew, and I have been friends via social media for a while and we tend to share similar links and posts. All three of us have been following the election since last year and at that time there was very little mention of disability issues or people with disabilities as a coveted voting bloc. Gregg came up with the idea of starting an online campaign around January of this year and that’s how #CripTheVote started.
Pulrang: I have had physical disabilities all of my life. I worked at a Center for Independent Living for about 25 years, and for the last three years I have been blogging and podcasting about disability. Alice, Gregg and I started #CripTheVote sometime between January and February of this year. It emerged out of discussions amongst the three of us about how little talk there was in the election so far about disabled people or disability issues. All three of us want to see the candidates reach out to the disability community, address important disability issues … and not just the usual ones that are easy to “support” but low on specifics. We also hope to get more disabled people actively involved in the elections. We hope our efforts will spur more action and discussions in both directions.
Beratan: Like Alice I’m a sociologist. I have a PhD in Education and go back forth between working in Disability Rights & academia. The movement started because we like many in the disability community were watching the election pass by and seeing the media & candidates find 5000 ways to ask and answer all the same questions about walls, banks & terrorists but never a mention of our community and the issues that are important to us. Three of had talked about the silence on Disability issues for a while and I think we had just had enough. Alice came up with the hashtag and we just knew it would capture the imagination. Being three people living in separate places with no budget a social media campaign made the most sense. The great thing has been seeing the Disability community take to it and take the hashtag in so many wonderful directions.
With the recent backlash of disabled people to Me Before You, the broader public has seen how vocal disabled people can be. How do you hope to harness that power in the electoral process and why haven’t disabled voices been heeded before? What are the most important questions disabled people need to ask at this point in the election?
Wong: Disabled people have always been involved and speaking out throughout the years. I think social media has given lots of people like myself a platform of our own (although there is a lot of privilege and access involved). With social media, we can insert ourselves into conversations, share our views, and engage with a wide variety of folks with little interference by others. There’s something liberating about that. Journalists, who increasingly rely on Twitter to find out what’s going on, are discovering our voices and finally taking notice.
There are a lot of questions disabled people are asking and they are all valid because it’s from their point of view. Disabled voters are concerned about the same things as all voters such as employment, healthcare, education, inequality, but these issues might impact them differently and those differences and nuances are important to highlight.
Pulrang: We have the numbers to be influential in politics and policy … on disability issues certainly, but also perhaps some of the more “generic” issues like health care, civil rights, education, justice, and the role of government. There are many reasons why the disability community has previously “punched under its weight.” Maybe the biggest is that most disabled people don’t even consider themselves part of a larger disability community. There are activists, but we are probably a smallish minority of the whole community. It has also traditionally been too easy for politicians to stay away from specifics on disability policy because we don’t engage with them in large enough numbers, or quickly and aggressively enough. We need to be a “credible threat,” or an electoral asset. That requires consistent effort on our part, and also probably more objective measuring of our impact.
We conducted an online survey of disability issues. 508 people took it, most of whom are disabled.
The top 5 issues are:
- Health Care
- Civil Rights / Discrimination
The top 5 policy ideas are:
- Hire and appoint more disabled people to government and policy-making positions.
- Pass the Disability Integration Act to promote independent living instead of nursing homes.
- Require disability awareness training for law enforcement.
- Ban payment of sub-minimum wage.
- Defend Social Security and Medicaid / Medicare against political attacks.
No matter what the issue is, I think it’s important always to ask candidates for specifics. What do they support? What do they oppose? What would they do if elected?
Beratan: Well this isn’t something that started with me before you or for that matter #CripTheVote. The Disability community has a long history of being the best kind of noncompliant. Whether its recent campaigns like #BoycottAutismSpeaks or #SayTheWord or past efforts like the 504 sit in and Gallaudet’s “Deaf President Now” protest our community has always worked very hard to make itself be heard. That nondisabled people continue needing to be reminded to listen is a mystery. But the reason #CripTheVote is working is because our community knows how to be heard. So I don’t know that we haven’t been heard before. There have certainly been campaigns in the past that have reached out to our community and done better jobs of listening. Obama, 2008 & G.H.W.Bush 1988 come to mind. But we intend to make the remaining campaigns listen this year too, and we’ve got the nation’s largest minority group to do it!
I think it’s a testament to the diversity of our community that there probably isn’t one set of identifiable questions people should be asking. If you look at the hashtag that’s one of the great things you will see, there are so many different issues and questions people want addressed. If there is one common question out there, maybe it’s when will the politicians start paying attention to this very large segment of the population. And this isn’t just presidential candidates, there are so many important congressional, senatorial, state & local elections this year. The candidates that answer this question and start to engage us are going to benefit!
For many disabled people of color, it can feel like we have to choose between voting based on issues important to our race over issues important to our disability. How do we honor intersectionality in the voting booth?
Wong: I don’t know whether disabled people of color have to make a choice between race and disability. I understand the tension between the two but disabled people of color shouldn’t have to choose one over the other because they are interrelated and can’t be separated. As a disabled woman of color, I’m watching and listening the candidates carefully–especially comments that may be racist, homophobic, transphobic, sexist, misogynistic, ableist, and Islamophobic. Each voter will make their own calculus when deciding their candidate of choice honors the intersectionality in all of us. It’s on the candidates, not us, to show how they speak to all of our identities and needs.
#CripTheVote acknowledges that disability issues don’t happen in a vacuum–the questions we raise in our chats may focus on disability, but they also address the rich diversity of experiences by the disability community and the privilege of race, class, and gender.
Pulrang: I am probably not the best person to answer this question. However, it doesn’t seem to me like there’s much of a conflict. Policies that are good for disabled people are generally not bad for people of color, and policies good for people of color are generally no problem for disabled people. Each person will choose how much weight to give each issue that matters to them, and factor all of that into their final decision on who to vote for. The only real conflict would be if a candidate that’s very good on one issue happens also to be very poor or sloppy on the other. That’s certainly possible, and perhaps sadly common. I don’t think we know. #CripTheVote is a great way to communicate those conflicts when they are discovered, and allow all of us to weigh the pros and cons. Better yet, we can use the hashtag to alert candidates if they have a problem … either regarding people of color, or about disability issues.
Beratan: This is something much of the disability community has been at fault on for some time and it is something we need to take seriously. And for #CripTheVote to work we need to amplify the voices of the whole community. There is no simple solution but for us a lot has been about always considering the ways issues affect our disabled people intersectionally. We try and do this when we are constructing our chats and with such a diverse community taking up the hashtag, we have been very lucky to have a wide range voices to listen to and learn from. They have made it much easier on us, I hope we do the same for them. The great thing about the hashtag and our chats is the space they have created for people to share their perspectives. Our most recent chat on “Mass Incarceration, Disability & the Legal System” is a great example we had people offering insights that drew on experiences of racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism and audism. The richness of that discussion meant that people didn’t have prioritize different aspects of their identity, they could focus on the space they occupied together. Don’t get me wrong, the issue you describe is still an issue, and identity politics will always tear at people in some ways, but I hope do a little to help make that make that more easily navigable.
If you are living in the UK and have any reactions or insights as to how Brexit will affect the disabled community and NHS, please message me on Twitter @Imani_Barbarin.