The teenage boy in the campaign ad has a noticeable limp — and something to say.
“I want a president who inspires me,” Dante Latchman says in the spot produced by a pro-Hillary Clinton super PAC, “and that’s not Donald Trump.”
The 17-year-old, who was disabled by a rare cancer of the spine, is one of several people with disabilities who have played a visible role in the 2016 campaign. There was Grace, a young girl with spina bifida, in another pro-Clinton ad. There was blind singer Timmy Kelly, who performed the national anthem at the Democratic National Convention. Anastasia Somoza, an activist with cerebral palsy, addressed the same crowd from her wheelchair onstage.
It’s the kind of political spotlight that disability rights advocates have craved for years — but the particular dynamics have left them feeling conflicted. The impetus for much of the focus came from one incendiary moment in the campaign, when Trump publicly mocked the physical disability of a New York Times reporter.
And for some advocates, the result has been an overly simplistic discussion of the issues facing the disabled.
“You shouldn’t mock anyone. But people have really zeroed in on this particular instance,” said Emily Ladau, a blogger and disability activist who said she thinks that the Democratic ads used disabled people as props to pull voters’ heartstrings. “People still pity disabled people, or they’re ‘inspired’ by us. But we’re not yet recognized as a legitimate voting bloc.”
“It’s one thing to talk about mocking a person with a disability. But it’s different to say, ‘Okay, so what are we going to do about it?’ ” she says. “How are we going to make them respected members of our community? How are we going to ensure that inclusive education is a priority across the country? How are we going to ensure that they have employment, that they all have health care, that all buildings are held responsible for complying with the Americans With Disabilities Act?”
The incident in which the Republican presidential nominee imitated journalist Serge Kovaleski — who has a condition known as arthrogryposis that limits his arm motion — opened a debate about Trump’s capacities for empathy and diplomacy. A recent Bloomberg Politics poll found that voters deemed it the most bothersome moment of his campaign.
Kovaleski drew Trump’s ire after he was interviewed on TV denying that a 2001 article he wrote provided confirmation of Trump’s widely discredited claim of having seen news footage of U.S. Muslims celebrating the 9/11 attacks. At a rally shortly thereafter, Trump scoffed at the journalist’s account, saying that “you’ve got to see this guy,” while jerking his arms in front of his body. Kovaleski, a former Washington Post staffer, declined to comment for this article.
The incident made headlines for days. And the video of Trump is still in wide circulation — a key part of the Dante Latchman testimonial for Clinton. “I don’t want a president who makes fun of me,” he says in the ad.
Alice Wong, who co-founded a social-media campaign known as #CripTheVote, intended to raise disability issues in the 2016 race and shares Ladau’s concern that the current debate “plays on the notion that disabled people are vulnerable and need to be protected.”
But some activists think Trump’s callous behavior was a favor in disguise. Disability received barely a mention in the 2012 presidential election, says Jennifer Mizrahi, president of the nonpartisan nonprofit group RespectAbility USA.
“Because of what Mr. Trump did, it elevated the issue,” Mizrahi says. “At both conventions, you saw individuals with disabilities speaking themselves, you saw the platforms of the two parties be more substantive and thoughtful on disability issues, and you see that voters are starting to answer and ask a lot more of these questions.”
It wasn’t the ideal way to draw attention to disability, Mizrahi says, but “it put the issue on the table.”
It was certainly front and center at the Democratic National Convention. Former U.S. senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, whose brother is deaf, made a point of showing delegates how to say “America” in sign language; Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), a veteran who lost her legs while serving in Iraq, lauded the party for standing up for people with disabilities; and Somoza delivered a powerful speech about inclusion and representation: “In a country where 56 million Americans with disabilities so often feel invisible, Hillary Clinton sees me.”
“Despite my cynicism, I got a bit verklempt on the last night of the DNC,” Wong says. “It felt like our moment arrived.”
But Gregg Beratan, who helped create #CripTheVote, says he is concerned that the most meaningful discussion has taken place within the disability community and “really hasn’t been picked up elsewhere.”
In coming months, the #CripTheVote social-media campaign will continue to host Twitter chats, which have drawn thousands of users, Beratan says. Recent topics have focused on the impact of violence and mass incarceration on disabled people, and two discussions in September will address voter turnout and the media’s representation of disability.
Curt Decker, executive director of the National Disability Rights Network, says his organization will be focusing on voter accessibility issues and encouraging disabled people to participate in political events — urging them “to go to town halls, to sit up front, to be seen, to ask questions,” he says. “I would like us to turn the corner and say let’s not just have a reaction to a negative statement from Donald Trump, but a positive message about disability out there.”