Obama: Including Deaf People with Disabilities
I originally posted this letter on November 5, when President Barack Obama had been elected fewer than 24 hours earlier. Now that he has been inaugurated, I thought it would be appropriate to post it again.
Dear President Elect Barack Obama:
I wanted to convey a heartfelt THANK YOU to President elect Obama for making an entire class of excluded citizens visible in his acceptance speech last night: people with disabilities. THANK YOU for including the word “disabled” in your acceptance speech last night.
I am a Deaf US citizen who also has attention deficit disorder and a mild foot problem. So I, too, am an American with disabilities. This is the first time I can recall feeling included in a political campaign as a person with disabilities.
Historically, people with disabilities have been pushed to the margins, confined to our homes–or worse, to institutions. This was partly because of who we are and partly because people simply did not prioritize our inclusion, even when it would be simple to do so. Then, because we were not allowed to be in the mainstream of society, people didn’t see us–and thus assumed we do not exist. So the issues and concerns with the most profound impact on our lives, our most basic freedoms, and even our day to day survival have been historically assumed to not matter.
We are among the largest minority groups in this country–the World Health Organization estimates we comprise about 10% of the population. Yet people don’t see us in their streets, in their homes, in their offices, in the policies that they draft, in the programs they run, or in their lives. In American society, and around the world, we are consistently “invisibilized.” Most politicians, most of the time, don’t even mention us the way Obama did last night. We are so consistently excluded that even tokenism would be a step forward for us.
I voted for Obama yesterday morning for many reasons. But one important motivation for me was that he was the only candidate to provide a truly comprehensive disability rights platform (PDF format, 62 Kb, 8 pages). It is particularly unique and impressive in that it is one of the few acknowledgments by a politician that disability issues are not confined to social protection programs, or to services for veterans disabled in war, or to education services for so-called “special needs” children.
All of these are important concerns also, but Obama’s platform is a rare recognition that people with disabilities are not a monolithic group. Social protection programs are not the start and end of our needs; we are not all veterans; and we are not all children. We are mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, brothers and sisters, friends and confidantes, co-workers and professional colleagues, spouses and partners, neighbors, and even professional and athletic rivals. We are everyone. And our needs are, correspondingly, as complex as the needs of everyone else.
Above all, as with any other marginalized minority group, our needs include the need for human rights protections. This makes it particularly noteworthy that Obama was the only candidate to pledge to sign the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and encourage the Senate to ratify it.
Yet: when Obama referred to “disabled” (and non-disabled) people in his speech last night, I stopped breathing. Even with his disability platform in mind, I had not been prepared for this moment. Suddenly, one of the most overlooked group of Americans was acknowledged as a force in our own right. Suddenly, I felt visible.
I had to stop writing this letter twice because I kept stopping to weep. How powerful a thing it is, simply to be validated. Simply to have a president elect of the country acknowledge that we exist. How powerful a thing it is, to have a president elect of the country acknowledge us, not as a special class apart, but as a part of the mainstream of society. Exactly as we should be. Exactly where we belong.
Mr. Obama, you can expect more letters from me in the years to come. I am a person with many opinions and am not afraid to express them. In particular, I will be calling upon you to follow through on your pledge to sign the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). You can bet I will be calling you to account on your promises to Americans with disabilities!
But for now, just for today–thank you. Thank you for referring to Americans with disabilities in your acceptance speech on the evening of November 4, 2008. Just, thank you–for acknowledging us and for including us. Thank you.
Ms. Andrea Shettle, MSW
This is an open letter to Barack Obama. I hope other Deaf people, and people with disabilities in general, will join me in reaching out to Obama from across the US and around the world. Thank him for including us in his remarks on election night. And remind him of his campaign promises to Americans with disabilities (Follow the link to download the 8-page, 62 Kb PDF file.
Even if you didn’t vote for Obama–if you are in the US, he will be your president too. Democrats and Republicans may disagree with each other on a great many things, including who would have been a better president for Americans with disabilities. But I think we also have many concerns in common that are well worth crossing the ideological divide. No matter who we voted for, let’s work together to ensure that we are increasingly included, and increasingly visible, in the mainstream of American politics and policies and public life. Let’s work together to ensure that we are included in the mainstream of society, full stop.
If you’re interested specifically in the CRPD–the first international, legally-binding human rights treaty to protect a wide range of human rights for people with disabilities around the world–check out RatifyNow.org. Ratification of the CRPD is very much consistent with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), with the bonus that it could help expand human rights protections into areas not currently covered in the ADA.
Obama’s administration can be contacted via his new Office of Public Liaison.