A New Day for Disability: Bipartisan Opportunities and the Road Ahead

Yesterday was not a happy day for me.  A registered Democrat since my 18th birthday, I make no pretense of nonpartisanship, and my party, and many causes that I personally champion, from climate change to consumer protection and a woman’s right to choose, took a hit.  Such is the life of one who lives in a democracy. I want to challenge everyone, however, not to accept that disability rights is among those causes.  Starting with the mantra that I learned on my first day as a disability activist, from my boss who had worked in George H.W. Bush’s White House, disability is not a partisan issue, or at least it shouldn’t be.

The ADA was a collaboration between Reagan appointees, Democratic and Republican Senators and members of Congress, and activists of all stripes and parties.  It was enthusiastically signed by the first President Bush.

Disability, tied up as it is in questions of human dignity, ennoblement and opportunity, is an issue where individuals of every political philosophy can find resonance.

Disability issues run the spectrum, from libertarians empathizing with Olmstead’s embrace of individual freedom and dignity, to pro-business and market activists who understand that the greatest uplift of the disability community will come from helping us to find jobs and become economically self-sufficient, to traditional progressives and traditional conservatives, both of whom should be advocating improvements to our safety net, since both philosophies emphasize that a truly great society does not allow its least fortunate members to slip through the cracks.

Most importantly, with one in five Americans being a person with a disability, disability is personal for nearly everyone, and could quickly become a life reality for anyone.  As I wrote in an earlier piece, in many ways disability is ideal for reaching across the aisle.

This is not to say that the Republican Party platform has been particularly friendly to disability issues of late.  A true repeal of the Affordable Care Act would be disastrous for people with disabilities and the fear mongering and isolationism that continues to keep the Senate from ratifying the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is nothing short of shameful.

Rather, it is to say that there is nothing central to being a Republican that requires one to oppose these or other disability issues.  The Affordable Care Act was patterned after a Republican idea from Massachusetts, and is predicated on the idea of solving the nation’s healthcare problem using market forces, something that seems to me to be a core conservative idea.  Republican icon, former Senate Majority Leader and 1996 presidential candidate Bob Dole has been a tireless champion of the CRPD.

The purpose of this post is not to analyze the toxic Washington partisan forces that have pushed political stances coming into this election.  Both Democrats and Republicans sacrificed practicality in wars of ideology.  But that’s a topic for a political blogger, not me.

As a disability blogger, I would rather focus on the fact that the disability agenda is, for the most part, an agenda that has as much room for deeply held Republican values as it does for deeply held Democratic ones.  This is the activists’ challenge, specifically those that identify as liberal or Democrat.

Put partisanship aside.  Understand the values that drive the individual legislators with which you are dealing.  There are 535 of them, and while a few of them may be corrupt, the vast majority have foregone lucrative life opportunities because of a strong desire to serve.  If they vote differently than you would like, it’s because they believe that a different path is in the best interest of this country, not because they are craven comic book villains acting in depraved self-interest.

Sometimes, then, the goal is to persuade.  I like to think that people of conscience who are mistaken are open to thoughtful persuasion, but even this is a red herring to disability activists, I think.

Much more important is to figure out how those differing opinions and beliefs still support righteous outcomes.  I engaged in a very brief exercise above, a cursory paragraph explaining how traditionally Republican values support important disability causes.  Cursory, but not frivolous.

I really do believe that large parts of the disability agenda are perfectly consistent with conservative of ideology, and the goal of any thoughtful activist should be to realize that, flesh it out, and convey it to our legislators.  The biggest strength of the disability agenda is its universal nature.

So I challenge you to work with that.  In January, 535 men and women who want the very best for the United States of America and its citizens are going to be sworn into office.  I implore everyone to be ready to work with them, to show them that what is best for us is consistent with their deeply held values and is indeed what is best for all Americans.  This is our challenge, and I know that we can do it.

In the words of Justin Dart, himself a lifelong Republican, who broke ranks with the party only when its platform abandoned the values which I believe many of its members still hold, “Lead on!”