During tonight's Democratic debate, the issue of lead in the water in Flint, Michigan took center stage. Both candidates rightfully called for the resignation of Governor Rick Snyder and outlined their plans for repairing the water system and assisting the people of Flint, particularly children, who have been affected by lead poisoning.
Disability, curiously enough, was not mentioned. Neither was race, for that matter. That was strange, because when you get down to it, Flint is a perfect storm of racism and classism coming together in an insidious storm to create and perpetuate ableism, racism, and classism. Over half of Flint's population is black, and almost half of the population lives below the poverty line.
And then this happened. Senator Bernie Sanders spoke about meeting a mother whose young daughter was affected by the poisoned water. "Imagine this for a second, imagine a mother who had a bright seven-year-old gregarious girl doing well in school. Two years later, that child is now in special education, intellectual capabilities significantly deteriorated. That is a crime against that child, and the people of Flint."
Once again, disability was solely used as a prop to illustrate a larger point. Disability is not the crime against the people of Flint. Intellectual disability, whether born or acquired, is not a crime. The crime is that people, mostly marginalized people, are being systematically poisoned, and their government, which is supposed to represent them, is sitting on their hands and humming a merry tune.
The entire purpose of that story was to impress upon the people the very real consequences that the contaminated water has had for the people of Flint. And that's important to talk about. But disabled people are not a tragedy. We are not your moral lesson, not the bogeyman under your bed. And a statement like that, by a presidential candidate, only contributes to the stigma and fear of disability, in Flint and beyond. The actual word was not said. It didn't need to be. And if it takes a sob story about a disabled person for you to grasp that there is injustice happening, you need to examine your morals a little more closely. Instead of, once again, objectifying disabled people to make non-disabled people feel something, let's ask this:
Dear presidential candidates, what are you going to do for the newly disabled children of Flint, Michigan?
Will you dismantle systems (like IQ testing and other standardized tests) that put disabled children of color at a distinct disadvantage because of inherent bias? The case of Larry Lucille P. v. Riles P. was over thirty years ago, proving that IQ tests are instruments of eugenics that rest on the ableist and racist assumption that children of color are naturally less intelligent than white children. And yet we still use IQ tests as a method of classifying children with intellectual and learning disabilities.
Will you make sure they get a free, appropriate public education as mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act? Will you make sure that their parents or guardians have the resources to understand the special education and IEP process and hire independent counsel to represent them and their children if due process is necessary?
Will you end the school to prison pipeline, which disproportionately affects disabled people of color? Will you make sure that the young black children growing up disabled in Flint will not live in fear of being killed by the police for the sole "crime" of being black and disabled? Freddie Grey was disabled by lead poisoning as a child. We all know how his story ended, a larger example of systemic, environmental racism and ableism coming together to paint a white, able man's hands with blood. What will you do to make sure that the children of Flint don't become the next Freddie Gray, and the next one, and the one after that?
Will you make sure they can go to college? When they have grown up, will you make sure they are gainfully employed (and not stuck in sheltered workshops that pay pennies as an hourly wage)? If they receieve benefits, will you ensure that they will not lose their healthcare and personal assistance services if they join the working world? Will you work to end the entwined systems of racism, classism, and ableism that will continue to put Flint's children at a disadvantage?
Disabled people are the largest minority in America. We are a swing group. Yet while the presidential candidates are campaigning furiously for the vote of black and Hispanic people, no one is actively campaigning for the disabled vote. And that's a problem.
The Respectability Report has done an amazing job of distributing surveys to each presidential candidate on the issues that matter to disabled people. Of the candidates still in the race, both Democratic candidates have responded. In fact, Senator Sanders was the first to respond and the only one to respond in full by the deadline set by the Respectability organization. Of the four Republicans still running, only John Kasich has responded to the survey.
The Respectability Report is a great start and I salute all those who are working tirelessly to shine a light on the candidates' positions on disability issues. But it is not enough. Disability needs to be an issue all the time, not just when talking to "special" people.
To the presidential candidates, take notice. Disabled people are tired of being your bogeyman or your punchline. We are waiting to finally become your constituency. Just say the word. We'll be listening.