Why Clinton is seeking the 'disability vote'

The 'inclusive economy' that Hillary Clinton speaks about aims to give people with disabilities the economic independence and dignity they are so often denied.

Carlos Barria/Reuters
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton greets Anastasia Somoza, a disability rights advocate, as she arrives at a campaign event at the Frontline Outreach and Youth Center in Orlando, U.S. September 21, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

At a campaign event in Orlando, Fla., on Wednesday, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton delivered a speech pointedly aimed at people with disabilities and their families, a group frequently forgotten during election season.

As Mrs. Clinton’s lead in the polls narrows, the appeal to a minority group that includes all demographics and political affiliations stands to greatly benefit her campaign, and maybe even draw some right-leaning veterans away from her Republican opponent, Donald Trump, say some observers.

In her speech, Clinton referred to people with disabilities as “a group of Americans who are, too often, invisible, overlooked and undervalued — who have so much to offer, but are given far too few chances to prove it. That’s been true for a long time, and we have to change it.”

This is not a new issue for Clinton, as she was quick to point out. She has advocated for people with disabilities through her work for the Children’s Defense Fund, supported the US joining the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and appointed the first special adviser for international disability rights.

If elected president, she said that she intends to better integrate people with disabilities into the nation’s economy through meaningful employment in a relationship that will be mutually beneficial.  While short on specifics, she pledged to address the “subminimum wage” paid to some people with disabilities, describing it as “a vestige from an ugly, ignorant past.”

“Whether they can participate in our economy and lead rich, full lives that are as healthy and productive as possible is a reflection on us as a country,” Clinton said in her speech Wednesday.

Greater employment for people with disabilities would mean more taxpayers and less money being drawn from government-funded disability programs such as Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, vocational rehabilitation, and special education.

The “inclusive economy” that Clinton seeks could make real change in the lives of people with disabilities, offering the economic independence and dignity they are so often denied.

Only one third of the 22 million working age Americans with a disability have a job, many of which pay below minimum wage. Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of Respect Ability, says that the president’s attitude has the power to affect the employability of people with disabilities.

“We find that this is a real barrier to employment when you have a presidential candidate who is minimizing the talent and contribution of people with intellectual disabilities who, like everyone else, want to have a job,” Ms. Mizrahi tells The Christian Science Monitor, referring to Mr. Trump’s mocking of a New York Times reporter with a physical disability.

While people with disabilities are not typically considered to be an influential minority in elections – polling companies don’t even track data on how many people with disabilities vote – they may just have the power to influence this election.

“Political parties are making a mistake if they write off the disability vote,” Curt Decker, executive director for National Disabilities Rights Network tells the Monitor.

Approximately one in five Americans have a disability, making them the largest minority group in the country, according to a study out of Rutgers University, and 35.4 million people with disabilities are eligible to vote this year - up 10 percent from 2008. Add in all their friends and loved ones and that is nearly a quarter of voters who are thinking about disability policy at the polls. Mizrahi says the largest group of people with disabilities are registered as independent, making it a swing voting bloc.

“It does seem that disability is getting more attention in this campaign, albeit maybe because it got into the conversation from a somewhat negative point of view, but if that is the catalyst for candidates actually talking about their policies to people with disabilities it is an incredibly positive thing and something that really hasn’t happened in the past,” Mr. Decker tells the Monitor.

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