Organizing in Trump’s America: the perspective of the disability community

The 2016 Presidential election was far from ordinary for minorities in America. Following eight years of Obama administration, which placed a great deal of emphasis of inclusivity and empowerment for under-represented groups, the 2016 campaign was characterized by a series of inflammatory statements about women, African-Americans, immigrants, refugees, Muslims, and persons with disabilities by Republican nominee Donald Trump. In one particularly controversial episode, Trump openly mocked a disabled reporter during a campaign rally in South Carolina on 24 November 2015. This moment was shared instantly by thousands of people on social media and later incorporated in a powerful TV ad by the Hillary Clinton campaign. At one point, opinion polls identified this episode as Trump’s “worst offense” during the course of the entire election campaign. Given the level of visibility that disability issues achieved in this election, it is useful to review the response of the disability community, the role of social media in mobilizing the disabled vote, and offer some insights into what the future may hold for grassroots disability organizing under a Trump presidency.

The disability community received an unprecedented amount of attention in the 2016 election. The difference between the two major party campaigns in this area could not have been greater. While the controversial episode cited above was the only instance in which the Trump campaign ‘engaged’ with disability issues, Hillary Clinton proposed several policy initiatives on issues directly relevant to Americans with disabilities and their families. Clinton’s website included specific pages dedicated to disability and healthcare issues, assistance programs such as Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act (colloquially known as ‘Obamacare’), mental health, Alzheimer’s disease, and disabled veterans. The democratic convention in Philadelphia featured several speakers with disabilities. Clinton herself gave a major speech on disability policy on 21 September. Although this was described by some news outlets as an ‘unusual push’ for a presidential candidate, it stood as testimony to the growing influence of a non-traditional constituency that, according to recent estimates, now includes 35.4 million registered US voters. In a close election such as this one, it was strategic for Clinton to connect with the disability community, which is much more politically diverse and not guaranteed to vote Democratic than many assume.

Americans with disabilities were no spectators in the 2016 campaign and instead became involved directly in a wide range of initiatives to mobilize their peers. On the one hand, established disability rights organizations such as the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) and the National Council on Independent Living (NCIL) campaigned tirelessly to encourage voter registration among people with disabilities, including through a targeted social media outreach. On the other hand, young disabled activists used Facebook and Twitter to launch the #CripTheVote campaign, designed to engage both voters with disabilities and candidates in discussions about disability-related issues. This was an innovative and successful grassroots initiative driven by a new and emerging generation of disabled leaders who are familiar and comfortable with social media technologies, which they seem eager to use to further their advocacy goals.

On November 8, Donald Trump won the presidential election and will lead the US for the next four years. This surprise result has already generated a high level of concern in the American disability community, with prominent advocates pleading with the incoming administration to protect the rights of persons with disabilities. While it would be premature to speculate about what the future may hold for American with disabilities under a Trump presidency, the conditions seem right for a new surge in disability rights activism supported by social and mobile media. As the experience of the welfare reform in the UK between 2010-12 taught us, crisis can be a powerful catalyst for changeand mobilization revival among large and diverse groups such as the disability community. American disability rights advocates are preparing themselves to face a Republican White House and Congress, and soon a conservative-majority Supreme Court. Obamacare and its provisions for people with pre-existing health conditions may be on the line. Medicaid entitlements are likely to be threatened. It seems that innovative organizing efforts for the disability community did not stop on polling day, but instead will become ever more important once the dust has settled over the election result.