It’s a safe bet that certain hot-button issues will be addressed in the next round of Democratic and Republican presidential debates this week: unemployment, health care, gun control, the economy.
But will the candidates talk about how the unemployment rate among the disabled is more than double that of non-disabled Americans? Or that people with disabilities are far more likely to be victims of violent crime? Will there be any mention of the many disabled people whose struggles are compounded by poverty and inadequate health care?
Probably not, say disability rights advocates — so they aim to change that. As the candidates take the stage, and a vast audience follows along on social media, disabled voters plan to make their voices heard by rallying under the Twitter hashtag #CripTheVote.
The campaign’s co-creators, disability rights advocates Gregg Beratan, Andrew Pulrang and Alice Wong, say the effort is nonpartisan; the goal isn’t to endorse any particular candidate, but to encourage them all to listen to the country’s largest and most diverse minority population.
“So many campaign moments have passed, and really no one was bringing disability issues into the discussion in a way that meant something to the disability community,” Beratan said. “We need them to start taking us very seriously as a voting bloc.”
Disability issues have surfaced in the election cycle from time to time, he said, but not always in a constructive or accurate context. Some Republicans have raised the scientifically disproven “link” between vaccinations and autism (much to the alarm of medical experts). Various candidates have voiced support for disabled veterans — often without elaborating much on what that support actually means. And then there was Donald Trump’s widely publicized mockery of New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski, who has a congenital muscular disorder that restricts movement in his joints.
It hasn’t exactly been the sort of attention that the disability community is looking for, Beratan said.
So the trio decided to create an online space for disabled voters who want to share their thoughts and perspectives about key political issues. The activists worked with national disability-focused organizations and nonprofits to spread the word about the first two #CripTheVote Twitter chats, which will be held during the hour preceding the Democratic debate on Thursday and the Republican debate on Saturday.
There’s no set agenda, and all perspectives are welcome, said Wong, who is also the founder of the Disability Visibility Project.
“We’re going to ask people with disabilities what issues matter to them most and encourage them to identify and highlight them,” she said. “Many issues that are a priority to all voters, such as the economy, gun control, mental health, employment, healthcare, and Social Security, are of interest to people with disabilities as well.”
But those issues affect disabled people differently, she added, and that nuance is often lost. So the organizers hope the Twitter chat will also help educate not just the candidates and their campaign staffs, but also other voters and the public at large.
“There are still a lot of people who think of disability as a purely physical thing — a person in a wheelchair,” Pulrang said, adding that this inevitably excludes the many people who struggle with “invisible” disabilities, such as chronic illness or developmental, cognitive or behavioral disorders.
The most important thing, Pulrang said, is for disabled people to be included in any decision that affects their lives — upholding the disability rights movement’s slogan: “Nothing about us without us.”
“One of the things I would like to see with the candidates is not just for them to come up with a bunch of policies, but to indicate that they’re willing to listen to what we have to say,” Pulrang said. “I think it would be amazing if a candidate was asked a disability question and they said — ‘You know, I don’t really know, but I would love to hear what the disability community thinks.’”
Beyond the upcoming debates, Wong said disabled advocates also plan to live-tweet the Democratic and Republican conventions from a disability perspective.
She hopes the campaign will “provide a space for respectful discussion among people with disabilities on what they want and need from their elected officials,” and that “#CripTheVote will raise the visibility of people with disabilities as a constituency that’s unique and worth listening to.”
Beratan said that numerous national organizations — including the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, the Autism Women’s Network and the American Association of People with Disabilities — planned to participate.
“We’re really hopeful the turnout will be high,” Beratan said, “because the stakes certainly are.”