Some of you may have seen David M. Perry’s recent article in “The Atlantic” that analyzes the disability stereotypes in “Grace”, the anti-Trump ad produced by the Priorities USA Super PAC for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. It’s a terrific article about how even when advocacy has the best of intentions, it can backfire.
Content Note: Election 2016, Hilary Clinton, Infantilization, Exploitation, Nothing for Us Without Us, Racism
Image Description: The words Election 2016 in blue over the waving flag of the United States.
I’ve been watching reactions to “Grace”. Non-disabled people see “Grace” as a slam-dunk, a powerhouse of an ad that’s going to go a long way toward hurting Trump:
The disability activists that Perry interviewed, all disabled themselves, weren’t so impressed with “Grace”:
Dominick Evans, Filmmaker: “It feels really exploitative to use this issue and speak about a disabled child and about disability and never include us in the discussion, at all.”
Alice Wong, Founder of the Disability Visibility Project and #CripTheVote: “…infantilization is [the] message that comes across in this ad. Unfortunately, infantilization of disabled adults is pretty commonplace in the media.”
Vilissa Thompson, Founder of Ramp Your Voice: “Disabled children’s images and stories are always used to evoke the sympathy feels among members in society.” She added that the images are almost always of white children.
“No matter how well intentioned campaigns may be, they may take a different approach than activists, even when they are working hard to court those groups. Activists want to move mainstream society to adopt new positions. Campaigns, and ad-makers at political-action groups, want to reach mainstream Americans where they are. Perhaps social change always requires activists to push politicians past their comfort zones.”
I don’t disagree with anything in the article. I added it to the Facebook page and have tweeted it several times precisely because I think it’s spot on. But I wanted to add some observations of my own about about “Grace”, based on watching Obama’s attitude toward disabled people.
I think that Thompson’s argument about disabled children being used to manipulate emotions also applies to disabled adults – and that the Democrats as a group tend to use disabled adults for this purpose more than the Republicans do. I first noticed it at the 2012 Democratic Convention, when Gabby Giffords recited the Pledge of Allegiance.
Of course, it was more than Gabby Giffords’ disabilities that made that moment emotionally charged. It was one of her few public appearances since she was shot in 2011 (presumably an assassination attempt.) But did it help that a person that, through hope, hard work and a belief in herself (which is the way everyone succeeds in America, yes?) had “overcome” the disabilities acquired through a senseless shooting to the point where she could join her peers and colleagues during this history-making event, recited the Pledge of Allegiance, so central to both the history, present and future of everyone was there to do, in front of all of them?
You bet it did.
Making Us “Feel All the Feels”
I wrote at the time, in Gabby Giffords and Emotional Manipulation by the Democrats:
I didn’t see Gabby Giffords recite the Pledge of Allegiance, but the clip that I saw and the activity on my Twitter feed told me that people were certainly affected by it. People talked about her strength, her bravery, and how they were crying.
And even I had to admit that it was nice to see Gabby Giffords if for nothing else to see how far she’d come in her recovery. But I also wrote in my piece:
“If you really want to honour people like Gabby Giffords, who have the will to live as full a life as possible with disability (and there are many of us), put policies in place that allow us to, and that allow the people who care about us to assist us to. For all disabilities.”
I was thinking this way as well the second time I saw Obama trot out a disabled person to ramp up the emotional intensity, during the State of the Union address in 2014. Corey Remsberg was a veteran who’d done 10 tours of duty in Afghanistan – he certainly deserved the recognition that he got during the address, even if the way that Obama told his story reeked of inspiration porn (“Cory Remsburg never gives up, and he does not quit,” said Obama to the crowd of the way Remsburg regained his ability to walk and talk during 16 months in a rehabilitation centre after nearly being killed by a roadside bomb in Kandahar.) I was even more angered by this display than I was by the one involving Gabby Giffords, because it was stunningly hypocritical. The US (and Canada, for that matter) loves to talk about how it supports its troops and takes care of them when they return from war, but we all know it’s not true – disabled US veterans are at the mercy of a VA system that isn’t even fully computerized, despite Obama identifying that as a priority for his administration, long wait times for services, and an uncertain future at the hands of the country that they put their lives on the line to protect.
It was one of the many reasons that I was disillusioned with that particular State of the Union address.
Oh, “Grace”…Call Me Cynical, But…
So, even hearing this time around from the Democrats that they’re considering disabled people in their campaign strategy, to the point when Hillary Clinton has even developed a plan to address the needs of autistic people and their families, I am skeptical, when I see ads like “Grace”, that they really “get it”. Disabled people are citizens and voters – I’m tired of us being used as props to rally the rest of the voting public. It doesn’t seem like politicians can get it through their heads (although through efforts like #CriptheVote I think that they’re starting to get it and will continue to see more clearly) that we’re a major voting demographic with *a lot* of power.
But we’re going to have to tell them when they don’t get it right.
Refuse to be a prop, American friends. You’re more than that, and people need to know it.
On an unrelated note, as of June 11 I’ve been blogging for 5 years.
Thanks to all you for sticking this out with me. 🙂