Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said that the treatment
of people with disabilities is a "reflection on us as a country" and that
"we are falling short" during a speech in Orlando on Sept. 21st.
(Photo: Orlando Sentinel via AP)
ORLANDO — Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton is pushing intensively to win over a group of voters who don’t typically get much attention during elections but who have become an increasingly potent political force: disabled people and their families.
With the race tighter than it was a month ago and Clinton struggling to generate enthusiasm within the Democratic base, her appeal to disabled people and their families comes amid a broader effort to win over voters. After weeks of mostly attacking Republican Donald Trump, she is highlighting specific policy prescriptions while trying to show a more compassionate side and present an affirmative vision for the country.
Clinton is also targeting Hispanics, women, caretakers of the elderly and sick, and families of gun-violence victims, among other constituencies focused on specific issues. In the case of the disability community, which cuts across all partisan and demographic divides, Clinton may be trying to attract not only Democratic-leaning voters who are not excited by her candidacy, but also voters who may be leaning toward Trump — notably disabled veterans.
One very visible piece of the effort came Wednesday in a policy speech here devoted to initiatives to more fully integrate those with disabilities into the nation’s economy. It is an issue, Clinton said, that “really goes to the heart of who we are as Americans.”
Speaking in a packed community-center gym in this presidential battleground state, Clinton pledged to fully support “a group of Americans who are, too often, invisible, overlooked and undervalued, who have so much to offer but are given too few chances to prove it.”
Nearly 1 in 5 Americans has a disability of some sort, according to a report last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and that does not take into account family, friends or co-workers sensitive to the challenges those individuals face. And among veterans, nearly 4 million live with service-related disabilities, according to the Census Bureau. Trump has led Clinton among veterans in most polls.
The magnitude and sophistication of lobbying efforts by advocates for those with disabilities have increased dramatically in recent years, presenting a preferred political candidate with ready-made networks to tap. In Congress and at statehouses across the country, disability advocates are now a fixture and increasingly have the ear of influential lawmakers.
“A lot of families and people with disabilities are single-issue voters, where this is the primary issue in deciding who to vote for,” said Allison Wohl, executive director of the Association of People Supporting EmploymentFirst, a group that seeks employment and self-sufficiency for people with disabilities. “So the campaign sees an opportunity.”
Before Wednesday’s speech, Wohl participated in a conference call between campaign aides and disability advocates to preview what the candidate would say.
And behind the scenes, the campaign had already enlisted more than 200 advocates for disabled people, who have been vouching for Clinton on social media, developing policy positions and raising some $1.3 million for her campaign, according to a Clinton adviser.
Disability issues are not new to the political universe; the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 brought the subject to the forefront. Targeting slices of the electorate with tailored messages is also not new; President George W. Bush in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008 did so with notable success.
Still, it is unusual for a candidate to speak on the subject that Clinton chose Wednesday with such specificity. In addition to targeting those personally affected by a disability, Clinton may also have been trying to reach a broader audience with awareness of the issues.
She also may have been trying to remind voters how Trump is best known among disability advocates — for mocking a disabled New York Times reporter. The image of Trump shaking in an exaggerated fashion has been incorporated into television ads by Clinton’s campaign and a supportive super PAC.
Trump has not issued any policy proposals on issues specific to the community.
According to former congressman Tony Coelho, who has known Clinton since her husband’s first presidential run, the two began working on disability issues when Clinton launched her campaign nearly 18 months ago.
Clinton first wanted to address Alzheimer’s disease, then autism, then mental health and now an economic agenda for people with disabilities, according to Coelho, who has epilepsy.
In January, while still competing for the nomination, Clinton delivered a speech on autism policy — drawing notice from many in the disability community. Since then, she has sought to highlight her commitment in other ways.
Coelho noted the prominence of people with disabilities at the Democratic National Convention in July.
“As we saw at the convention, we were mentioned every night by every major speaker,” Coelho said. “We’re mentioned 35 times in 19 different sections in the [party] platform. That’s never happened.”
During her speech here Wednesday, Clinton ticked off her support for integrated work settings, eliminating “sub- minimum wages” and spurring businesses to improve hiring practices for those living with a disability.
She also pledged to make colleges more accessible to disabled students, a problem she said the country has taken too long to address.
Clinton also talked about Leah Katz-Hernandez, the West Wing receptionist who is deaf and is the first person who greets “world leaders when they come to the White House.”
By focusing on the economic empowerment of people with disabilities, Clinton is addressing what most advocates say is the single greatest problem among people with physical and intellectual disabilities: extreme poverty.
Advocates also said that, with more than 53 million Americans with some form of disability — and their network of loved ones orders of magnitude greater — Clinton’s pitch could have real political resonance.
“This is an absolutely historic campaign in that it’s the first time in American history where voters with disabilities will literally make the difference between who wins and loses in this campaign,” said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, the president of RespectAbility, a nonprofit group that advocates empowering people with disabilities.
As Clinton wrapped up her speech, Mizrahi worked the press corps, touting overtures Clinton has made, including an ad featuring sign language.
While established organizations have provided a boost for Clinton, other, more organic efforts have also emerged.
For instance, early in the campaign, Amber Buckley-Shaklee, a graduate student at the University of Illinois with a neuromuscular disease, launched a Facebook page called People with Disabilities for Hillary. Buckley-Shaklee died last fall, but her sister, Shannon Buckley-Shaklee, has taken over the page, she said.
Amber liked many things about Clinton’s Democratic primary opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, but ultimately backed Clinton in large part because of her advocacy for people with disabilities, her sister said.
Mizrahi’s organization has worked since the primaries to engage political candidates on both sides of the aisle about their policies for disabled people. But she said that she has been stonewalled by Trump’s campaign.
Mizrahi made two trips to Trump Tower this year — including one trip in the past week — asking the campaign to fill out a questionnaire about the campaign’s policy on disability issues.
“Everyone is very polite and I leave my business card and ask them to get back to me. But I don’t make it past security,” Mizrahi said. “They have told us that they don’t see it in their interest” to fill out the questionnaire.
Trump’s campaign lacks the organization and structure of Clinton’s, and it has yet to reach out to a number of voting blocs in a meaningful way, including disabled people. Trump’s campaign website contains no policy proposals specifically aimed at helping disabled people, and the topic is not part of his regular campaign speeches.
It has come up as Trump has defensively sought to explain that he did not mock Serge Kovaleski, the disabled New York Times reporter, contrary to appearances. Trump has said he was imitating a groveling person and did not know the reporter was disabled.
Clinton was introduced in Orlando by Anastasia Somoza, a disability rights advocate who was born with cerebral palsy and has known Clinton since she was 9 years old. Somoza is also featured in a new national television ad, announced by the campaign on Wednesday, that contrasts Clinton’s advocacy for disabled people with Trump’s apparent mocking of Kovaleski.