Pundits decry Wendy Davis' wheelchair campaign ad. But what do Texans with disabilities think?

Everyone from Mother Jones to Fox News has slammed the campaign spot, but the head of the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities says people are focusing on imagery rather than issues.

Andy Jacobsohn/The Dallas Morning News/AP
Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis (D), right, and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott (R), left, shake hands before the final gubernatorial debate in a KERA-TV studio in Dallas on Sept. 30.

No question, many politicians and pundits find a highly controversial “wheelchair ad” in the Texas governor race “disgusting,” “offensive,” and “a historic low” in campaign advertising.

But what do people with disabilities think of the ad?

The spot, put forward by Democrat Wendy Davis, slams Republican candidate Attorney General Greg Abbott – who is wheelchair-bound – for successfully suing for millions of dollars after a tree fell on him in 1984, and then failing to legally help other victims. 

It opens with a stark picture of an empty wheelchair, cites his lucrative lawsuit, then lists three cases in which he did not back liability suits from other Texans.

Dennis Borel, the executive director of the nonpartisan Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, points out that both sides have now showcased wheelchairs in their ads.

In one ad, Mr. Abbott pushes himself up a ramp to the top of an eight-floor garage to illustrate the perseverance he would bring to the governorship. A somewhat humorous ad about Texas roads shows him rolling along the shoulder of a backed-up road, quipping that sometimes “a guy in a wheelchair” can move faster than Texas traffic.

Mr. Borel says that the talk about taking offense is misplaced.  

“Now that both sides have pulled out the wheelchairs, let’s get past the imagery and get to the real issues” that affect people with disabilities in Texas, he says.

He cites 150,000 disabled Texans who prefer to stay at home – at significant savings to taxpayers – who can’t get adequate help from community programs. The programs face chronic recruitment and retention problems because of low pay and other issues. At the same time, he says, the state is fixated on institutions for the disabled, while waiting lists for in-home community programs are as long as 13 years. 

Lastly, he faults the state for its claim of “sovereign immunity,” which shields Texas from lawsuits under the 1990 federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Let’s talk substance,” says Borel, who heads the largest disabilities association in Texas. “That’s where we want to go.”

But that’s not where Texas politicians are headed with this ad fight.

On Monday, the Abbott campaign released a video featuring criticism of the ad from a range of media outlets: “It's offensive and nasty and it shouldn't exist,” (Ben Dreyfuss for Mother Jones); “Really the ugliest ad I’ve seen in years” (Chris Stirewalt for Fox News).

Speaking of his opponent, Abbott told The San Antonio Express-News last week: “It's her choice if she wants to attack a guy in a wheelchair. I don't think it's going to sell too well.” 

His campaign called the ad “disgusting” and said it should disqualify Ms. Davis from seeking the governor’s office.

Davis, a Texas state senator, trails Abbot by 11 points, according to the Real Clear Politics average of public polls. She defends the ad.

She defended the ad at a press conference on Monday, where she was flanked by two people in wheelchairs and one with cerebral palsy.

 "This ad is about one thing and one thing only: It’s about hypocrisy," she said.

“This ad is not about Greg Abbott in a wheelchair,” Davis’s pollster, Joel Benenson, told The Texas Tribune on Sunday.

“This ad is about Greg Abbott’s behavior and actions with other victims after he had his opportunity and rightly sought justice and received a substantial amount of money,” he said. It’s about Abbott as an “insider,” he said.

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