It is a very tight Republican primary and the front-runners are winning in some states and losing in others. In the general election, it will be even tighter with the fate of the nation hanging in the balance. The election might come down to a single demographic casting the deciding vote.
No, it’s not 2010, it is 1988. George Herbert Walker Bush is the candidate who wins narrowly, and the group that makes the difference was very likely—the disabled. Bush had courted voters with disabilities during his primary battle and later in the race against Michael Dukakis, who neglected that constituency. C. Boyden Gray, Bush’s advisor and later White House counsel, recollected that “the most important thing that I did personally” was to make disability “a campaign issue…All of us thought that was an important thing to do.” And it was since Bush won the election by a mere seven million votes. Lee Atwater, Bush’s notorious campaign advisor, told Gray that he thought the disability vote was “a very important part of the election outcome.”
In Bush’s acceptance speech for the party’s nomination, and in his first State of the Union message, he significantly mentioned people with disabilities, as did President Obama in his first acceptance speech.
Indeed, people with disabilities are the largest minority in the United States, making up about eighteen per cent of citizens and about ten per cent of the voting population. If you are running for office, you ignore them at your peril. And yet in this election cycle almost no candidates are talking about people with disabilities.
Now the stakes are high for the largest minority. People with disabilities are currently dramatically unemployed, with close to eighty per cent jobless. They are the poorest minority, with a disabled person twice as likely as a non-disabled person to earn $14,000 or less for a family of four. Minimum wage standards don’t apply to many people with disabilities who work in sheltered workshops, and some of them earn as little as thirty-five cents an hour. Disabled people are now the only identity group who cannot marry, since marriage to anyone who makes more than $1,800 dollars a year or who has more than $2000 in the bank will cut off disability benefits.
A new group has been calling attention to this problem. Using the hash tag #CripTheVote, disability rights advocates Gregg Beratan, Andrew Pulrang, and Alice Wong, are running streaming non-partisan dialogues alongside each presidential debate.
The hash tag is a good start but won’t alone settle the problem. The candidates themselves can. Even if only to further their campaigns, they need to recognize that coming up with proposals to address the genuine problem of disability in this nation will be a win for people and a win for campaigns. Candidates who talk about helping the poor need to focus on the largest and poorest minority who also vote—people with disabilities. They vote, and in a tight election could make the difference between victory or defeat as they did in 1988 and as they can do now.
About the Author
An award-winning author of eleven books, including My Sense of Silence and Enabling Acts, Lennard J. Davis is Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts in the departments of Disability Studies and English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He has written for the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Nation, and Chronicle of Higher Education, among other publications. He lives in New York City. Follow him on Twitter at @lendavis.