Politicians Often Ignore Disability Issues, but a New Campaign Will Change That

Janine Jackson: July 26 will be the 28th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Disability activist and writer Mary Johnson wrote for FAIR about the historic 1990 signing on the White House Lawn — at that point, and maybe still, the largest gathering ever of journalists for a “disability story.” And while celebration was in order, it was hard not to notice the shallowness of some press coverage. One story noted an empty wheelchair and suggested that “the occupant might have gotten up and walked on the waves of emotion.” And only a single wire piece pointed out that the White House itself lacked the accessible bathrooms that the ADA mandated.

Media do tend to cover the ADA anniversary. But that reporting often takes a boring, “We’ve come a long way; there’s a long way to go” tone that implies that full human rights for people with disabilities are something less than urgent, and that presents the disability community as sort of waiting and hoping for acknowledgment and inclusion.

The disability community has always been more complicated, more diverse, more active and more engaged than elite media suggest, and elections are chances to see evidence of that. Our next guest is Andrew Pulrang; he’s co-founder, along with Gregg Beratan and Alice Wong, of the #CripTheVote campaign. He also blogs at DisabilityThinking.com. He joins us now by phone from Plattsburgh, New York. Welcome to CounterSpin, Andrew Pulrang.

Andrew Pulrang: Well, thank you very much for having me.

Let’s start with the ADA. It did shift the terms from “accommodation” of people with disabilities — in the workforce, in public space — to a “civil rights” kind of framing, you know — that it’s not noblesse oblige; this is a legal right to access and to opportunity. And I wouldn’t want to underestimate the value of simply declaring that. But I wonder, 28 years on, how would you assess the ADA’s actual impact? Do we see the spirit and the letter of the law being lived out, do you think?

It’s just not an easy question to answer. And you really can’t get around the fact that it depends on what one was expecting from the law to begin with. So, yes, we expected all new buildings to be fully accessible, we expected buildings that were renovated to always have the renovated portion be accessible, and we expected existing buildings that were kind of old to get gradually more accessible in a steady sort of way. We expected transportation to all be accessible, up to and including buses and trains, and all that kind of stuff. But I think we really expected a lot better employment situations.

And anyway, overall, I think that the results have been mixed; that’s being kind of charitable. As you pointed out, disability issues do tend to be put on a back burner. Not that they are not important, or that people don’t acknowledge, in the abstract, that they might be important, but they just don’t ever seem to get to the top of the list. And that includes the top of the list for businesses that are going to open a new store, and that type of thing.

I remember very well doing a story about Clint Eastwood at the time, who had a restaurant, I guess, that was inaccessible, and had been sued, and his response I thought was representative in some ways of a certain kind of attitude, which was, “Why didn’t they just ask me?”

Well, that’s the premise behind, I think it’s HR 620, the bill in Congress that would actually amend the Americans With Disabilities Act so that you would have to, in some fashion, directly inform somebody before suing them for violation of the ADA. Which, to a lot of people, maybe most people, sounds like common sense, and in fact, I would say, it’s what most people do. Most people do not just out of the air one day visit a place, see it’s not accessible, and file a lawsuit. It’s a really hard thing to do. And it’s not lucrative, for the most part; it’s expensive. So most people do, if they do anything at all, they do go and say, “Hey, your place is inaccessible. Can you fix that?”

So Clint Eastwood’s problem back then, and the problems that are cited now, I think you can find anecdotal cases where maybe you would have done it differently, and maybe a place was sort of blindsided or whatever. But I think that’s been blown way out of proportion for a political purpose, which is to basically take any fangs left in the ADA out of it for businesses, essentially.

Right. I just think when people think about it a little deeper, they might wonder why someone would have to make a complaint, make a lawsuit, or any of that, in order to simply have access to things that folks expect to have access to. You know, the idea that you should simply accept that you’re a second-class citizen, and that your polling place might not be accessible…. I just think it’s a framing question, in terms of the way we think of it, and I have to confess: I am never not surprised, I am never not surprised, at the willingness of not just media, but many people, to sort of think, “Well, ah, that’s terrible, but you know….” It’s not a “rights” kind of conversation that we tend to have.

The last few years at the anniversary, we were constantly pointing out: Now it’s going to be 28 years, and the thing is, we’ve been hearing essentially the same story, in some vague form, for 28 years, which is that — and it’s not always explicit, but the implication — that, “Oh, these are a bunch of new requirements, and it’s going to take time.” Well, I would accept even 10 years ago, right? I would even accept that that is in some sense new, in a grand historical span of the way these people have been building buildings.

But 28 years is long enough for people to figure this stuff out. And that includes buildings that in 1990 were already existing, that includes old downtowns with, you know, two steps up to the old store or soda shop or whatever. What we see most in the way of barriers is not so much, unfortunately not so much, your strip malls and big shopping centers, but your downtowns. You know, they have their own problems, trying to struggle, but they all have steps in front of them, because they were all built in the 1890s.

But still, it’s been 28 years! There are solutions to these things. I think — with the exception of people who really did their jobs, and code enforcement officials who really did their jobs, which they do not always do — most other people kind of put it on the back burner. They kind of know what the ADA is, but they think, “Well, there’s nothing I can do about it. It’s just too expensive to get a better place or put a ramp in or what have you, and I’m just going to wait until somebody complains.”

When we think about how to respond to that, when we think about societal solutions to push people to make changes without an individual coming up and asking them, well, we think about the electoral process and the political process, so let’s move on to #CripTheVote. It’s an online campaign, it’s a kind of space, really, as I understand it, for a conversation. And it started with you and Alice Wong and Gregg Beratan watching the presidential debates back in 2015 and noting the, as Gregg called it, “the loud silence” around issues affecting people with disabilities. How has #CripTheVote grown since then? What is its role now, going forward into these new elections?

Well, it’s really evolved. We started out just live-tweeting the debates, because the three of us — Gregg, Alice and myself — were just saying, “Well, you know, once again, we’re probably not going to hear anything,” or “Will we hear anything that even remotely we can relate to, as far as disability?” And that developed into saying, “Well, why just the debates? Why don’t we have chats on specific topics, where we say, ‘OK, at a certain date and time, we’re going to have an hour-long discussion on Twitter?’”

And the way it all ties together is through the hashtag #CripTheVote. And that’s not just a slogan, it’s an actual mechanism to follow the conversation. So we started having scheduled chats. We put out questions beforehand, so that people could see what it was going to be about first and prepare some answers, because people have a hard time, sometimes, keeping up with Twitter. We also did an online survey, not scientific but just of our little community, of what issues do we care about most, what are our priorities? And we kind of disseminated that, and we just continued through the conventions, and right up until the elections and after.

I thought your findings on that survey, in terms of what leapt out for people, were interesting. What did you learn there?

The one that sticks out is the top issue, or the top initiative, that we put on the list, that got the most votes by far, were to appoint and elect more disabled people into public office. So we were thinking in those terms of, “So a new president’s coming in, who are you going to appoint to run agencies and help run agencies that actually pertain to our issues?” And that we want to see representation, not just at the ballot box, but in office — to me, that was the biggest surprise, because we put it in there thinking, “Well, let’s see what people think about that.” And it got the biggest vote of all.

In other words, people really actually want disabled people representing them, and not simply to add their list of concerns to a long list of other things, but actual representation. And that’s not to say they didn’t care about other issues, but actual representation.

I think we gave them a list of 15 issues, and let them choose 10. Healthcare was a big issue.

Wages, home care services. Well, I wanted to say, disabled people vote. Right? You know, this might be a misconception, but vote in numbers very close to average numbers, nationally.

We vote less than we should, in the sense that there are fewer of us voting than are eligible. And that always seems to be the case. But, in real numbers, it’s very large. So it’s a significant voting population. I remember when I first got started in disability rights, back around the ADA’s passage, people were already saying that an incident that happened in the early ’80s, regarding disability policy, changed how the first President Bush dealt with disability issues. They wanted to do some regulation change regarding disability services, and the outcry was way bigger than they had imagined. Some people weigh that as being one of the founding things, that why would this Republican president sign this act, even though it passed Congress? And one of them was that he, at the very least, had a respect for the power of the disability movement. And I think we’ve always been trying to capitalize on that. But there’s a dozen reasons why it’s hard to actually turn numbers into clout.

And that’s what #CripTheVote — one of the reasons that I appreciate it so much is that it brings together a range of things that people might not necessarily “tag” as disability-related, but that absolutely are. And I relate it to journalism because, with any marginalized group, it’s not just a matter of wanting them to do stories on the particular experiences of people with disabilities, for example, but to also locate disabled people within the stories that they are doing every day, you know? I mean, you can read 10 stories about Social Security and not have one of them elaborate what it means for people with disabilities. In other words, in terms of media, it’s not just an overlooking of the disabled community but, I think in some cases, an actual erasure of disabled people from issues that they ought to be part of.

Exactly. I mean, there’s an issue going on right now that, I think it’s a little early to tell exactly how it’s going to play out, but the issue of banning plastic straws is a very interesting example. As you may be aware, it seems to be the hot issue right now as far as grassroots environmental efforts, because it’s a thing you can do locally. You can get your municipality, you can get a company to do it, Starbucks says that they’re going to ban plastic straws by 2020, or something like that. But there’s a significant portion of disabled folks that need plastic straws to be able to drink. The movement got quite far along before anybody took any real notice of the fact that, “Hey, some of us really need these things.” It’s just started to come out, I’ve seen some news stories about it in regular media, that are non-specialized, that are pointing out, “Hey, this is a little problem here.” It’s an example of how our issues can be absolutely forgotten.

And that things can be so compartmentalized. And this comes back to#CripTheVote, which is an intersectional kind of conversation. I once had kind of a fight with a disability activist; I got a mailer that said, essentially, “Black people have overcome. When is it our turn?” You know? And I thought, “You know, what if I’m black and disabled?” And this can be such a difficulty, I think, for folks; it’s not people with disabilities versus black people versus people who care about the environment. That’s where the intersectionality comes in. And #CripTheVote has made a space for thinking across difference, even within the disabled community.

We really have, and I have to say, personally, that that’s been a growth thing for me. Because, I do come from the tradition which tended to see disability issues — you had sort of an inferiority complex about it, which is kind of understandable, because of what we’ve just been talking about. One of the strategies, I think, has been, traditionally, to not ally with other people, and not to let “other people’s issues” get into our own, because we need to focus on disability, because people won’t do that.

And I think that’s just a wrong strategy, for one thing. In addition to being, you know, immoral, I think it’s just a flawed strategy. I think you have to ally with other people, and you have to realize that groups overlap in dozens of ways. And I’ve been very glad that we’ve been able to do that, to some extent at least, in #CripTheVote.

Yeah, it makes for a strength, I think, going forward. Well, one of the things that you have written about is a set of issues that people might think are electoral issues, but that they might not think about as disability issues, and I just wonder, what are some of the things — whether you’re talking to journalists or just to regular folk — what are some things that you might want to put on the radar in terms of, “You might not know that this engages the disability community, but it actually is critical there.”

OK, I’ll mention, first of all, one of the issues that we were hoping to work on under slightly different circumstances, but haven’t given up on, is the subminimum wage. This is where certain subgroups of disabled folks, it is legal to pay them less than minimum wage for their work, which has been a rehabilitation strategy, I guess you could call it, since the 1930s. We feel it’s long overdue to be ended. If you’re going to have people with disabilities, who maybe you say cannot work in a regular job, if you’re going to be doing stuff to have them work in workshops, or do special kinds of employment, you know, why not just pay the minimum wage? You know what I’m saying? You’re already doing all this other stuff, just go ahead and pay the minimum wage. It’s become such an insult and so degrading and so unnecessary, I think, especially right now when the economy, in terms of jobs, is relatively good, comparatively, when there are alternatives for people to go to. So we want to do that.

Another issue is Medicaid and healthcare in general, but particularly right now Medicaid, because last year, part of the healthcare debate proposed massive, massive cuts to Medicaid. And a lot of people with disabilities depend on Medicaid, not just for their healthcare, as we tend to think of it, but for everyday personal care, just to live and function in their own homes. Cuts of the size that they were proposing would just not be sustainable, and we would probably lose a lot of those services.

And what you kind of alluded to before, that people really don’t know about them so much, is really one of our constant challenges. Let’s take the healthcare debate: Medicare for All is a fairly popular idea on the left. I think a lot of us share the general idea of universal healthcare along the lines of Medicaid… Medicare for All (see, I’m slipping right there), but for people with disabilities, frankly, we’d prefer Medicaid for All. Because Medicare doesn’t do home care. And frankly, a lot of people you run into, I’m not going to say everybody, but a lot of people aren’t really sure what’s the difference between Medicaid and Medicare. So you say, “Medicare For All, great!” I know that what they’re referring to is this general idea, but the details…

And that’s, frankly, one of the things about disability issues that’s sort of unique, is that details always matter with our issues, whether it’s the difference between Medicare and Medicaid, or the difference between a half-inch step and no step at all, those little details that everybody looks at and says, “Well, does it really matter?” Well, it almost always really does matter for us.

We’ve been speaking with Andrew Pulrang. He’s co-founder of the #CripTheVote campaign, and he blogs at DisabilityThinking.com. Andrew Pulrang, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

Thank you for having me; it was a pleasure.