We All Lose When We Ignore the Talents of the Disabled

It is a bit painful to admit, but to be honest, I’m one of those people that is pretty ignorant of the unique challenges faced by people with disabilities. I was introduced to that ignorance years ago when, as the executive director of a nonprofit, two of my colleagues who held the same position in other organizations were disabled: one was deaf and one was blind.

Not only was I given the opportunity to contemplate what it would mean to do my job under those circumstances, I occasionally found myself in situations where I marveled at the courage these women displayed in doing so many things that I simply took for granted. Like the time one of them lectured a group of us who were having a heated discussion where we were talking over one another. She said that it was not only rude, but her sign language interpreter had no way of relaying two voices that were speaking at once. And then there was the time I had to drop one of them off to wait in front of city hall while I went to park the car because there were no available handicapped parking spaces. I tried to imagine the courage it took to stand there on a busy sidewalk downtown and not be able to see what was going on around her.

But those were simply things these women had learned to do every day in the course of their lives. Perhaps that explains – at least in part – why they were two of the most talented and gifted executive directors I ever worked with.

I thought of those two women when I saw this ad from the Clinton campaign.

This week, Hillary Clinton gave a policy speech devoted to initiatives to more fully integrate those with disabilities into the nation’s economy and has included those policies on her campaign web site. Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of the group RespectAbility, says that it goes beyond that, though.

As she sees it, Clinton and her campaign are going deep. She describes it as “absolutely unprecedented” for a presidential campaign to put this much focus on voters with disabilities, putting captions on the screen for all of its online videos, answering her group’s candidate questionnaire with a high level of detail, proposing a plan to support people with autism, and giving a major address on the economic challenges faced by disabled Americans.

As DiMarco pointed out in the video, I’m apparently not the only one who lived most of my life being ignorant of what it means to be disabled when he said, “wer’e used to being ignored.” As my two colleagues demonstrated so well, that can be pretty effectively remedied by simply spending time with people and paying attention – which is what Clinton has apparently done.

Clinton maintained a positive message throughout, threading together familiar stories she tells often on the campaign trail, about her time as a young lawyer working for the Children’s Defense Fund, trying to get disabled children access to school, and about some of the people with disabilities she has met, worked with and been inspired by over the years.

“One advocate after another has told me the same thing: ‘We don’t want pity. We want paychecks. We want the chance to contribute,’ ” Clinton said.

Based on my own personal experience, a failure to take heed doesn’t just impact those who are disabled. We all lose when we ignore the talents this group of courageous people bring to the table.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.