Why the GOP is Ignoring the Disabled

by on December 4th, 2007

In an election that has all the trappings of being the most contentious in recent history, GOP candidates have steadfastly ignored the issues affecting disabled Americans at every step along the way, and have taken little flack for doing so. Composed of over 50 million Americans, the disabled community represents a huge segment of the voting populace. Its members have been drastically affected by the federal government’s inability to protect them from discrimination under the American Disabilities Act (ADA)–a statute that has been eviscerated by a narrow Supreme Court interpretation–leading to overt and legal discrimination in the workplace. Of the severely disabled, over 26% reside in poverty and only 13% are able to work. However, thanks to the passage of the Help America Vote act, every disabled individual–including the blind and deaf–will be provided with a reasonable opportunity to vote in 2008.

For these reasons, it seems strange that the Republicans appear to be surrendering the disabled vote to the Democratic Party, but their actions yield few if any other conclusions. In April of this year, the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) sent out a packet of questions to all of the major presidential candidates. The inquiry was a collaborative effort that included the National Council on Independent Living and Self Advocates Become Empowered. Five Democrats, including frontrunners Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards, returned the the survey completed.

None of the Republicans candidates responded.

In early November, the AAPD hosted a candidate forum in New Hampshire where hundreds of individuals with disabilities came to listen to presidential hopefuls talk about their plans to provide equality, opportunity, and access to the disabled. “People with disabilities have a right to be full participants in all aspects of society,” said AAPD President Andrew Imparto while at the forum. “We need leadership from the top,” he added.

So, who showed up at the AAPD’s presidential forum?

Seven of the eight major Democratic candidates and none of the Republicans except for John McCain, who was only able to participate by phone.

In a recent post on his assistive technology blog, disability columnist John Williams noted that no Republican candidates have responded to his inquires regarding disability as well. A visit to the Republican National Committee website reveals little to no mention of disability issues either, while the Democratic National Committee features a full section about disability issues on its site.

Neither the Democratic nor the Republican candidates emphasize disability issues on their specific campaign websites, but Democratic candidates have stressed their commitment to those with disabilities on numerous occasions. At the New Hampshire AAPD forum, front-runner Hillary Clinton promised to reinstate her husband’s executive order that called on federal agencies to hire 100,000 people with disabilities in five years. In the AAPD questionnaire, Obama, Edwards, former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, and Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd all stated that they would appoint a permanent assistant to the President for disability policy, if elected.

In addition, three of the Democratic candidates have either suffered from or been directly affected by a disability themselves. Dodd, who authored provisions of the Help America Vote Act and co-sponsored the Americans with Disability Act in 1975, has taken much of his personal inspiration on the issue from his sister Carolyn, who is visually impaired. Former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel has publically talked about his struggle with dyslexia as a child, and Congressman Dennis Kucinich needed extensive speech therapy when he was in grade school to deal with a chronic stutter.

Can a GOP president show equal support for the disabled?

Despite its lack of response in the current electoral cycle, Republicans have championed a substantial amount of disability related legislation in the past. In a 2003 AAPD memo, President Jim Aparto praised the work of President Bush on disability issues and admitted that his organization hasn’t always been “even handed or fair” when assessing Republican contributions to disability issues. He went on to tout numerous appointments of disability champions by Republicans, and then reminded the public that it was George H. Bush who signed the ADA and Civil Rights Restoration Act into law in 1990.

In his tenure, Bush, along with the Republicans in Congress, also supported the Help America Vote Act, and a current effort to reinstate the intent of the ADA has attracted sponsorship and support from both sides of the aisle.

So, why are the Republicans so shy about stumping for the disabled in 2007?

The main reason may lie in the GOP’s current move towards a hard-line stance on fiscal conservatism. Throughout the primary debate season, Republican presidential hopefuls have allotted much of their efforts to capturing the title of ‘ Fiscal Conservative King,’ in the hope of differentiating themselves from their peers and the Democrats. Front-runners Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney have been particularly prone to spar about who will cut more wasteful government programs, which may be part of the reason why the GOP doesn’t want to make providing for the disability community part of its 2007 electoral campaign.

The majority of programs for the disabled incorporate subsidies and funding from the government. For a party trying to re-define its image as more economical after eight years of heightened spending, touting the need for services and programs for the disabled–no matter how necessary and pragmatic they are–may not make seem to make much political sense.

Unfortunately for the Republicans, their lack of discourse about disability provisions makes their miscues on the issue stand out. In a recent news story, it was unveiled that GOP front-runner Rudy Giuliani billed the New York City Office of the Disabled for more than $10,00 dollars worth of security detail and travel expenses during adulterous trysts in Long Island with now current wife, Judith Nathan.

If no positive rhetoric is generated by the GOP in the next 9 months, such misdeeds will be what disabled voters will associate with the Republicans, when they arrive at the ballot box in November.

Daniel Lawton