Photo of Presidential debate stage with four empty podiums

Here’s Some Free Advice for Presidential Candidates on How to Talk About Disability

The 2020 Elections are still 17 months away and there are currently 26 people are running for President. We’re just about to see the first two Democratic Debates, set for June 26 and 27.

With that in mind, I’d like to offer some free advice on disability to all the candidates, which should apply regardless of party, ideology, or past behavior.

1. Don’t separate disability from other issues.

Candidates tend to address disability issues and the disability community only when the subject is brought to their attention, or when it’s a specific “disability issue.”

It’s important to recognize that disability issues intersect with all other issues, including, but not limited to: health care, education, economic policy, law enforcement and incarceration, immigration, civil and human rights, and infrastructure. And, disabled voters are part of all other constituencies.

So, don’t just speak about disability when spoken to about it. Bring it up on your own, unprompted, because it’s an issue relevant to many, many voters.

2. Remember that language is personal and important.

Don’t refer to us as “handicapped,” “mentally- or physically-challenged,” “special needs,” or any other euphemism engineered to make us feel better. These terms aren’t just awkward. To many of us, they are cringeworthy. We are people with disabilities, or disabled people.

In fact, you may have heard that it’s important to use “person first” language, referring to us as “people with disabilities” rather than “disabled people.” For most audiences, this is probably still your safest bet. But you should know that many in the disability community are shifting to “identity first” phrasing, calling ourselves “disabled people.” Switching between person first and identity first language can signal your awareness of an evolving, vibrant disability culture.

But what’s most important is respecting each individual’s preference. There’s no single “correct” way to refer to disabled people. Just follow your audience’s lead.

3. We want solutions, not sympathy.

Disabled people often feel invisible. So publicly addressing us and our concerns is important. But it matters how you do it.

Don’t get into the habit of using disabled people as examples of victimhood. We experience injustice every day, but we are not helpless, and it’s insulting to be everyone’s go-to group for plucking heartstrings.

At the same time, we aren’t impressed by broad, poetic tributes to disabled people in general and our supposed admirable qualities. Too often, politicians speak of disabled people’s resilience, creativity, and courage. But we display these qualities simply to survive in the face of the physical barriers, discrimination, and bureaucratic chaos that plagues disabled people’s lives.

Instead of praising our admirable virtues, tell us what you would do to improve our quality of life. Politicians are in a unique position to fix the problems that force us to be so admirable in the first place. We’re not interested in your approval. We want to hear your solutions.

4. Avoid comparisons and analogies.

You may find yourself wanting to compare disability with other, more familiar experiences, but rhetorically and politically, it’s very risky, and often off-base.

Don’t draw analogies between disability and race, gender, sexuality, or any other experiences of marginalized groups. Ableism isn’t “just like” racism, sexism, or homophobia. There are some similarities and overlaps, but they shouldn’t be directly compared. And since disabled people can be of multiple marginalized identities, such comparisons don’t even make sense.

And please don’t equate the time you had a cast for a couple of months, or a disability simulation you tried for an afternoon, with lifelong disability. You may have gained a small insight into physical barriers and ableism, but don’t overstate. Claiming a depth of understanding you can’t have is disrespectful.

5. Talk to us, not just about us.

Our struggle for recognition, rights, and respect can be understood as a struggle to be “subjects” and not “objects.” Most political speeches cast disabled people in the third person, as “they.” Instead, address disabled people directly with the second person “you.” And in personal, meet-and-greet settings where a disabled person is present, don’t speak about them in the third person to a non-disabled person … as in, “Did we find your daughter a good seat for the town hall?” Disabled people are voters. We have opinions, ideas, and feelings of our own. Speak to us. As a familiar saying in the disability rights movement goes, “Nothing about us without us!”

On a related note, talking to parents of disabled people isn’t the same as talking to disabled people themselves. It’s perfectly appropriate to speak to parents and families about disability issues, but you should consider them a related but separate constituency.

Now more than ever, disabled voters will be watching and listening not only to your plans and policies, but also to how you address us. It’s not just about respect; it’s good politics.

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  1. I agree with this topic, Andrew. I have Spina Bifida, and I am a Democrat. I’m leaning a bit towards Biden, yet I do not know his agenda when it pertains to people with disabilities, so it will be interesting to see what he has to say, if anything. There a lot Democrats that want to be the next President, and I am listening to most of them. Some I’ve already totally dismissed as a possibility, however.

  2. I’ve been an advocate for persons with disabilities for 50 years. To ‘categorize’ these people with one description is just wrong! Living with ‘your’ disability requires adapting to the world in ways that we, of the ‘non-disabled’ world (there are none of us living ‘disability-free”) have worked to provide by designing new pathways, and by choosing and using inclusive methods that, in fact, help every human to move about the world.

  3. I wish this and other tips I’ve seen got to the panels before the presidential debates, but thanks for sharing this now! Never too late. I had the chance to go to an event with one of the presidential candidates yesterday. I acknowledged his work on disability issues in my State but noted none of the candidates at the debates mentioned people with disabilities even though we are 56 million strong. The candidate recognized my point immediately and said the press didn’t ask any questions, but that he would mention it in future debates even if he wasn’t asked. Good answer. I’ll be listening. Seems like citing how large of a disability population one has in their state or local community is another way to get the attention of candidates. In my case, 56 million did!

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