Politicians with Disabilities: Challenges and Choices
Abstract and Keywords
Persons with disabilities make up a large and significant segment of the American public; however, Americans with disabilities have rarely been considered an important political constituency or received public (or scholarly) attention in terms of their representation among political candidates or office holders. To the extent that people with disabilities have been addressed in American political discourse, they have been associated with the receipt of public benefits and services instead of being thought of as people with the potential to actively participate. Having a physical or mental impairment has typically carried with it a considerable degree of social stigma, and to be disabled is, in the minds of many, to be incapable and incompetent, dependent on others, and even morally questionable. Thus, for much of American history, the perception of an individual as disabled has been inconsistent with the personal qualities that the voting public and political gatekeepers view as desirable for public officials.
While there have always been politicians with disabilities in government, many of them have chosen to hide or minimize the visibility and extent of their impairments. However, cultural changes in part provoked by the disability rights movement have meant that many impairments have become less discrediting, and that people with disabilities are more likely to be seen as having the potential to be contributing citizens. The number of political candidates and officeholders with disabilities appears to be increasing, and some have chosen to include or even highlight their disabling condition as they present themselves to their constituents.
Persons with disabilities make up a large and significant segment of the American public; they are included in all segments of the general population, and in 2014 they represented more than 36 million individuals of voting age, according to the American Community Survey (U.S. Census, 2017). However, Americans with disabilities have rarely been considered an important political constituency or received public attention in terms of their representation among political candidates or office holders. To the extent that people with disabilities have been perceived as part of American political discourse, they have typically been associated with the receipt of public benefits and services instead of than thought of as people with the potential to actively participate.
Having a physical or mental impairment has also typically carried with it a considerable degree of social stigma, what Erving Goffman (1963) has referred to as a “spoiled,” or deeply discredited, identity. To be disabled is, in the minds of many, to be incapable and incompetent, dependent on others, and even morally questionable (Darling, 2013; Hahn, 1985). Thus, for much of American history, the perception of an individual as disabled has been inconsistent with the personal qualities that the voting public and political gatekeepers view as desirable for public officials.
It makes sense then that though, historically, politicians with disabilities have served at all levels of government, their numbers are notably low. Further, many of these politicians have generally chosen to hide or minimize the visibility and extent of their impairments. Political leaders often have hidden their impairments and chronic health conditions unless those conditions have been incidental or a consequence of military service.
Since the late 1960s, we have begun to witness some cracks in the traditional views of disability. Cultural changes that have, in part, been provoked by the disability rights movement in the United States (Shapiro, 1993) and in a more global context (Barnartt, Schriner, & Scotch, 2001) have framed disability squarely in the context of a rights agenda, helping to change the way people with disabilities are seen as having the potential to be contributing citizens. Consequently, at least at the anecdotal level, the number of political candidates and politicians with disabilities in the United States and worldwide appears to be increasing, many forms of impairments may have become less discrediting, and some modern-day politicians appear to have chosen to include or even highlight their disabling condition in presenting themselves to their constituents.
What choices and challenges will this increasing number of candidates and politicians with disabilities face as they campaign for office and represent constituents? In the 21st century, how will they present their disabilities to the public? Examples of how past and current politicians with disabilities have handled their situations are interesting in their own right, and they also speak to broader issues of political representation in the context of a particular group whose perspective has often been excluded from the political dialogue. As has been the case among members other underrepresented groups (women, African Americans, and the LGBTQ community, for instance), a number of politicians have found ways to include concerns about disability as part of their larger political agenda. Some even put forth the idea that because they have faced particular challenges, they are well positioned for the rigors of political office. At the same time, there is considerable variation in this regard: if candidates seek to point up their disabilities, they have considerable leeway in terms of how to do so, and a variety of factors, including the make-up of political constituencies and the ideology of the politicians themselves contribute to the differences in how politicians present their disabilities to the public.
Disability and Identity
In American culture, disability has often been framed within a medical or functional incapacity model (Hahn, 1985) that strips agency from the person with a disability, who is considered to be inherently incapable of assuming responsible social roles. The disabled person may even be considered to be responsible for her own condition or seen as an undesirable member of the community who is best kept away from participation in public life or whose impairment must be hidden so as not to compromise the perception of vigor and capability.
Alternatively, disability may be seen through the lens of a social model (Shakespeare, Bickenbach, Pfeiffer, & Watson, 2006), as a form of difference that is morally neutral and may even be a personal asset that can promote the development of insight and empathy in an individual. The social model characterizes “disability” as a trait that is socially constructed, the product of interaction between an individual’s physical or mental condition and how well that trait fits into the social and physical environment in which an individual functions (Scotch, 2000; Scotch & Schriner, 1997).
In many societies, having a physical or mental attribute that stands out from what is considered typical can lead to negative consequences, discrediting the individual and leading to assumptions of incapacity and questionable moral standing. Since successful politicians often project images of themselves as competent, worthy, and even possessed of personal qualities that are superior to those of the general population, having a disabling condition may be particularly problematic to political actors.
However, there may be exceptions to this association, where an impairment is perceived as the emblematic (and perhaps even the consequence) of participation in an activity that is socially valued, such as military service. These impairments might be displayed as a sign of moral valor, as with disabled veterans, or confer a status known as “supercrip,” where the perception of “overcoming” the assumed limitations of an impairment increases moral stature (Shapiro, 1993, pp. 16–18).
There may be an implicit hierarchy of impairments, according to which different conditions are associated with varying degrees of positive value or stigma. Impairments that are associated with behaviors or statuses considered illegitimate may, if they are publicly acknowledged, render political careers unlikely or impossible. Examples include conditions assumed to be the result of stigmatized sexual activity or illegal drug use; but stigma may also be connected to discrediting conditions that can be perceived through the lens of character assessment, such as mental illness. Other impairments may be considered inherently questionable, regardless of any behavioral contributing factors; if these impairments are associated with cognitive or communication disorders, it may lead to the assumption of incapacity even if the association is spurious. For example, someone who is subject to seizures, has a serious speech impediment, or exhibits visible muscular spasms may be perceived to be unreliable and out of control in some fundamental moral or personal sense or of questionable capability, at best.
The salience of an impairment for political roles may also depend on whether its onset (or the awareness of its existence) occurs before or after a politician enters public life. Thus a well-known and highly regarded politician who develops a visual or mobility limitation may experience responses that are less negative than someone whose introduction to public life includes awareness of her impairment.
In all these instances, the connotation and hence the political significance of an impairment may be more a function of the context within which it is perceived or framed than intrinsic to the impairment itself. Someone who is blind may not be perceived as inherently incapable unless or until he or she is depicted as confused, hesitant, or unaware of the physical surroundings in a particular situation, which may undermine the person’s credibility. For candidates with disabilities, the accessibility of the physical environment may reinforce or undermine perceptions of their competence. The gatekeeping function of the media and popular culture can be a critical factor in the self-presentation of public figures.
Another key factor in how disability may be related to the perceptions of constituencies is the capacity of the person with an impairment for strategic “presentation of self,” the ability to successfully manage the impressions of others through the selective display of personal characteristics (Goffman, 1959). Richard Fenno (1978, pp. 54–55) notes in his classic work Home Style how members of the U.S. Congress attempt to shape how they are perceived through verbal and nonverbal communication. Fenno writes, “Every congressman tries to convey to his constituents a sense of his qualification for the job he seeks” (p. 57). The experience and ability of candidates to present themselves as well-qualified, independent of the presence of an impairment varies and may critically influence their success.
Challenges and Choices
As people with disabilities increasingly seek careers in the political arena, how will they handle the inevitable challenges that will arise as they go about campaigning, and in some cases, governing? How will they present their disability to potential constituents, if they present it at all? How will they establish the credibility of their candidacies, and if elected, in what ways will their political agenda include disability concerns?
Fenno’s (1978) framework is useful in thinking about these and related questions. Fenno’s in-depth case studies of the activities of legislators put members’ self-presentations front and center. By making choices about how to present themselves to their constituents, members develop home styles designed to instill trust in their constituents. In turn, these home styles conditioned on a number of political factors, notably on the character of a legislator’s constituency and his or her own background, interests, and preferences. Constituencies’ expectations set the boundaries for what legislators do, and legislators in turn make choices about how to present themselves in response to those expectations (Burden, 2007; Friedman, 2007). Although Fenno found many commonalities among the legislators he studied, he also showed that one size simply does not fit all; legislator presentations vary, and those variations can be explained by a number factors, including the aforementioned constituency and background variables.
Using Fenno’s work as the backdrop for understanding potential strategies put forward by politicians with disabilities is useful for a number of reasons. First, Fenno’s focus on in-depth presentations is particularly well-suited to a group of politicians whose presentation to constituents is bound to be nuanced and multidimensional. As candidates consider which aspects of a disability identity to make public, they may not only be deciding which issues to put forward as part of their agenda but also making decisions about the extent to which they want to disclose very personal aspects of their private lives. As is the case with members of other underrepresented groups, there is a tendency to stereotype and categorize people with disabilities as if they all react similarly and fit into one proverbial box. Fenno’s work provides an important reminder that variations in constituency and background factors matter, thus encouraging us to be on the lookout for consequent variation in presentational styles.
That said, in a future in which more politicians with disabilities will likely seek the attainment of political office, what strategies will they use to convince the public that they are capable of doing the job? It is worth noting in this regard that the things politicians with disabilities will need to do to be elected are, first and foremost, the same kinds of things that other candidates need to do. In that sense, it is important to say that many of the people described here have entered political office by working their way up the political ladder, in the same way other politicians do, and many have entered politics extremely well prepared.1 What follows is based on an examination of the careers of approximately a dozen politicians with disabilities who have attempted runs for political office in the last few decades.
Minimizing Disability: Models from the Past
In the early 21st century, though candidates with physical disabilities in American politics still seem few and far between, it is important to recognize that such candidates have nonetheless not been totally absent from the political landscape. A website with the intriguing, though somewhat off-putting name, Political Graveyard (http://www.politicalgraveyard.com/special/disabled.html) provides a list of more than 150 individuals with physical disabilities (“blindness, paralysis, loss of limb, etc.”) who have either campaigned for or actually obtained political office. Although there is no way of judging the comprehensiveness of the information the site provides, this list does suggest that over time, more people with physical disabilities have attempted runs at political office than might be anticipated. The list also includes some well-known political names. Peter Stuyvesant, a prominent figure in the early history of New York City, who had lost a limb in battle. Benjamin Tillman, was known as the “one-eyed plowboy,” lost an eye in 1864; he later served as governor of South Carolina (1890–1994). In the context of unusual behavior, those who study the U.S. Congress have frequently heard the story of senator Preston Brooks (a pro-slavery Democrat from South Carolina) who, in 1856, seriously injured fellow senator Charles Sumner (a Free Soil Party abolitionist from Massachusetts), beating him with a cane in an incident on the floor of the Senate chamber. Why did Brooks have a cane in the first place? Brooks himself had previously been seriously injured in a duel, and thereafter had to walk with a cane. Finally, Thomas Gore, blind since boyhood (and best known today as the grandfather of the writer Gore Vidal), served on the Oklahoma Territorial Council and was one of the first two U.S. senators to represent Oklahoma (1907–1921 and 1931–1937).2
Of course, the politician with a disability who has historically garnered the most attention is former New York governor and U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt. It is well known that the way Roosevelt handled his polio was to “hide” or at least minimize the extent of his infirmity when he presented himself to the public. Fearing that images of himself in a wheelchair would take away from his stature as a candidate and later as president, throughout the 1930s and 1940s, FDR did everything he could to keep from the public any depiction of his wheelchair. Despite the behind-the-scenes work he did on behalf of the polio rehabilitation facility at Warm Springs, Georgia, FDR worried that being seen as a “cripple” was antithetical to being perceived as “good leader” (Gallagher, 1985).
But the strategy of minimizing one’s disability and its implications for constituents is not limited to the1930s. Consider the examples of Bob Dole (U.S. representative and senator from Kansas, 1961–1996) and John East (U.S. senator from North Carolina, 1981–1986). Having experienced serious injuries in World War II, Dole had to undergo significant and lengthy rehabilitation, and he never fully regained the use of one arm. Like Roosevelt, Dole was involved in significant behind-the-scenes efforts on behalf of people with disabilities (see, e.g., Scotch & Friedman, 2014). When he ran for president, in 1996, Dole’s campaign website proudly proclaimed his advocacy on behalf of people with disabilities:
During his years in the Senate, Bob Dole supported every major piece of disability legislation before Congress. He has helped improve civil rights, education, job training, employment, housing and vocational training for the disabled. [Dole] played key roles in passing the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, the 1975 Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act, the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the 1986 Protection and Advocacy for the Mentally Ill Act, the 1986 Air Carriers Access Act, the 1986 Education of the Deaf Act, the 1988 Technology Assistance Act and the 1990 Television Decoder Circuitry Act.
(“Where Bob Dole Stands,” 1996)
As an indication of the importance of disability issues for Dole, it is worth noting that the first speech he delivered on the floor of the Senate—on an anniversary of the injuries he received in World War II—advocated for easier access for people with disabilities, and he has highlighted his work on behalf of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act as one of his proudest accomplishments (Dole, 2005).
But it was a different story when Dole had to present his disability to the public. He developed a way of holding a pen to make his hand appear normal (Dole, 2005), and he kept his personal experiences with disability private for most of his political career. An illustration from the 1996 presidential campaign is typical. As the campaign floundered, staffers urged Dole to open up about his personal story. The candidate agreed and planned to give a speech at the prestigious Gallaudet University for the deaf. Staffers alerted the press to the possibility of a defining moment. It turned out, though, that the moment never happened. Dole chose not to talk in a particularly personal way, and the speech was subsequently described as a pretty mundane affair (Scotch & Friedman, 2014). It was not until after he retired from Congress that Dole became more willing to make things personal, going so far as to write his autobiography (2005) in which he movingly recounted his life story, including some of the most vulnerable moments of his post–World War II rehabilitation.
In turn, John East, the Republican senator from North Carolina, had contracted polio in the 1950s and used a wheelchair the rest of his life. A political science professor at East Carolina University, East was little known until he received backing from conservatives across the state. “East was selected for the Senate race by Jesse Helms, North Carolina’s senior senator, and received strong financing from Helms’s right-wing National Congressional Club, in Raleigh. The backing enabled East to defeat his incumbent opponent by 10,000 votes” (Hudak, 1986). Yet despite being the first senator to use a wheelchair since Charles Potter in the 1940s, East was “accustomed to downplaying his disability. In fact, before the election few people in North Carolina even realized he was handicapped, since the issue simply never was raised” (Clifford, 1981).
Further, “associates said John East was as tough minded and determined about his physical condition as he was in supporting Ronald Reagan and the conservative agenda. As an arch-conservative, he did not champion causes involving disability civil rights” (Hudak, 1986). The campaign was an ideological battle pitting conservative supporters of Ronald Reagan against Democrats defending the record of President Carter.
Why did Roosevelt and Dole relegate their disability-related efforts to behind-the-scenes work? Why were all these politicians so reluctant to speak about disability in public? Though the answers to these questions are complex, it is possible to discern the interaction of a number of factors—the past and the lingering stigma of disability and the importance of individual personalities. Factors of constituency, party, and ideology can also figure into the mix.
Including Disability as Part of the Discourse
Since the advent of the contemporary disability rights movement in the late 1960s, some candidates began incorporating disability into their campaigns and into their efforts to connect with their constituents.
It is worth noting that presenting a compelling or even heroic story has been a theme for a number of politicians with disabilities. This is certainly true for military veterans of service, which, traditionally, the majority of successful politicians were. Indeed, in an era when so much stigma and so many stereotypes surrounded people with disabilities, the compelling story may have been virtually the only way to get through the political door. In addition to Senator Dole, several other World War II veterans served in Congress, including Daniel Inouye (senator from Hawaii), Charles Potter (senator from Michigan), John F. Kennedy (Massachusetts senator and U.S. president) and Olan Teague (member of the U.S. House of Representatives). Max Cleland served in several capacities as a Georgia politician and is best known outside the state for his term in the U.S. Senate (1996–2002) and for the controversial attack ad in his 2002 race claiming that even though he had lost several limbs in Vietnam, he was simply not patriotic enough for a second term (Barr, 2008). More recently, Tammy Duckworth, who was disabled as a result of her service in the Iraq War, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, in 2013, and later made a successful Senate bid. Since January 2017, she has served as the junior senator from the State of Illinois in the U.S. Senate.
Ordinary citizens, too, can sometimes get traction from their unique stories of coming back from injury and overcoming tough odds. James Langevin (D-Rhode Island), who was injured in an accident at age 16 while interning for the local police department, subsequently let his constituents know that he was the first quadriplegic to serve in the House of Representatives. Greg Abbott, the governor of Texas, was paralyzed at age 26 when he was hit by a falling tree while jogging. And Cyrus Habib, the lieutenant governor of Washington State, highlights overcoming a childhood bout with cancer that left him blind.
A compelling story may get you noticed, but it is the connection of that compelling story to actually leading and governing that must be made for constituents. All of these politicians, in one way or another, demonstrated their credibility by working their way up through the political ranks. Langevin served in the Rhode Island House of Representatives and as Rhode Island secretary of state; Abbott had served as Texas attorney general; and Habib served both in the Washington State House of Representatives and State Senate. Duckworth’s career is particularly interesting in this regard because following quickly on the heels of her injury, she took on an advocacy role working on behalf of veterans, and she made a first run for Congress in 2006, only a year and a half after sustaining her injuries (Friedman & Scotch, 2014).
Besides establishing credibility through a prior record, how will candidates use their compelling stories when they present themselves to voters, and what will that mean for how they present their disability? One strategy for such candidates is to suggest that they will apply the kind of hard work they have invested in prior occupations and in managing their impairments to working hard on behalf of their constituents, and that their disabilities make them uniquely qualified to do so. Consider the following examples:
Max Cleland: “Anyone who can withstand a year in Vietnam understands where the heat is and what the pressure is . . . I’m putting my best foot forward this November . . . even if I have no feet.”
(quoted in Allen-Mills, 1996)
Tammy Duckworth: “I view my time now as a bonus. And that has allowed me to speak up without fear.”
(quoted in Bellware, 2015)
Greg Abbott: “You often hear politicians talk about having a spine of steel . . . I actually have a steel spine, and I will put that to work for you.”
(quoted in Fernandez, 2013)
Candidates must also sometimes make complex choices about when and how to put their disabilities front and center. Consider, for instance, the contrasting presentations of Republican Greg Abbott and Democrat James Langevin.
Only the third state governor (after FDR and George Wallace) to use a wheelchair, Abbott makes his priorities clear in the biography on his gubernatorial website (https://gov.texas.gov/governor-abbott). He tells citizens that he “continues building on [the record of strong, conservative leadership” he established as state attorney general and as a justice on the Texas Supreme Court. He focuses on “the constitutional principles on which this state and our nation were founded” and “continues to fight to preserve our shared values—like faith, family and freedom—for future generations.”
Thus, his first State of the State address, among other things, highlighted the need for local control via the education sector; the importance of enforcing the “rule of law” with respect to border control; improvements in roads and transportation; and restraints on the growth of government. “Governor Abbott’s vision for an even stronger Texas of tomorrow is focused on creating more jobs and economic opportunity, elevating our schools and education system, building the transportation infrastructure needed to keep the economy growing and securing the Texas border in the face of federal inaction” (Abbott, 2015). Where does disability fit into this picture? Was Abbott’s reference to his “spine of steel” in his campaign advertising an effective way to point up his disability? Although the ad may seem flippant to some, in Abbott’s context, it also seems like a smart campaign strategy; this “spine of steel” has meant that he has developed the self-reliant and independent character that an outsider might stereotypically associate with the state of Texas. As the Austin American-Statesmen wrote, “No matter how he feels about the needs of other people with disabilities, he himself is not asking anyone for anything to redress his own disability or to treat him any differently than any other Texan trolling for votes. He certainly has not made a special plea for disabled voters to support him” (Tilove, 2015).
This emphasis on self-reliance and conservative values, though, has led to some controversy for Abbott on disability issues. Abbott, a strong supporter of state-sovereignty claims in Eleventh Amendment cases relating to disability, told the Austin American-Statesman shortly after he announced his candidacy, “To suggest that just because I have a disability that I would abandon the law is like suggesting to Barack Obama that he ignore the Constitution in favor of someone who was African-American. . . . That’s an insult” (Tilove, 2015).
In another disability-related incident, Abbott apparently went out of his way to visit a high school to celebrate the accomplishment of a student in a wheelchair who had independently raised a significant amount of money to pay for the installation of automatic doors at the school (Tilove, 2015). On the first day back to school in January, Abbott came to Austin High to salute Archer Hadley, who, Abbott said, had learned from his mother what the governor had learned from his own mother: “There are two words that do not belong together in the state of Texas, and those two words are, ‘I can’t’” (Tilove, 2015). Some disability groups, however, noted that though Abbott had praised the efforts of an independent student, he didn’t go out of his way to offer any government assistance.
In a state like Texas, which demands its governor have swagger, Abbott ran for governor as a kind of super hero—a man both figuratively and literally with a “spine of steel.” He presented himself as an iron man who, in his introductory campaign ad, re-enacted his recovery regimen of rolling his wheelchair up every floor of an eight-story parking garage. “With each floor it got harder and harder, but I wouldn’t quit,” Abbott says in the voice-over. “Just one more, I would tell myself, Just one more” (Tilove, 2015).
Unlike some other politicians with disabilities before him, Abbott freely acknowledges at least some of the circumstances of his accident and his need to use a wheelchair. He even manages to make light of the situation:
I know what you’ve gotta be thinking: How slow was that guy running that he got hit by a tree?
(quoted in Tilove, 2015)
It’s a sad day in Texas when a guy in a wheelchair can move faster than traffic on our congested roads.
(“Governor Abbott addresses,” 2015)
Overall, Abbott isn’t shy about pointing to his disability, but it has also been suggested that, as befits the image of a governor from the Lone Star State, he touts a strong self-reliance streak and certainly does not think the accommodation of disability should be high on the governmental agenda.3
Congressman Langevin takes a different tack. Like Abbott, he was injured in an accident. Like Abbott, he has many interests and priorities as he goes about the job of representing the State of Rhode Island.
Recognized as a national and party leader on national security, health care and cybersecurity, Congressman Jim Langevin has dedicated his many years of public service at the federal and state levels to the hard-working citizens of Rhode Island . . . . As part of the Democratic Leadership team, Langevin serves as both a Democratic Regional Whip for New England and a member of House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer’s Senior Whip Team. In these roles, he is responsible for educating other Democratic members on key issues and helping to craft the party’s strategy and legislative agenda.
(Langevin Congressional Website, n.d.)
At the same time, in contrast to Abbott’s conservative agenda, it is easy to find instances from public record sources—Langevin’s website and press articles—documenting the congressman’s work on behalf of disability issues (Scotch & Friedman, 2014). He presents himself on his official website as “a strong advocate for inclusion and independence for people with disabilities” (Langevin Congressional Website, n.d.). Unlike Abbott, Langevin sees an important role for government in this area. To back this up, he lets his constituents know that “he helped pass the ADA Amendments Act that strengthened the protections of the Americans with Disabilities Act,” that he founded the bipartisan Congressional Caucus on Disability Issues, and that “his commitment to advancing the science of stem-cell research has earned him recognition as a national leader who works tirelessly to educate and encourage his colleagues to embrace medical research in all of its forms” (Langevin Congressional Website, n.d.). Unlike the vast majority of his House colleagues, Langevin includes disabilities on the list of issues “that are important to our District and my work in Congress.” His staff have developed expertise on disability issues, at least one staffer has received national recognition (“Langevin Staffer Recognized,” 2004). Langevin has received many awards for his work, including the Henry Viscardi Achievement Award (which “honors people with disabilities for their work and influence on the global disability community”) Langevin Congressional Website (n.d.) and the MS Society 2010 Representative of the Year Langevin Congressional Website (n.d.). He also is in the National Spinal Cord Injury Association Hall of Fame Langevin Congressional Website (n.d.).
Yet there are probably more similarities between the disability-related issues facing Abbott and Langevin than their different parties and ideologies would predict. Although both politicians have been known at times to make light of their disabilities (on Langevin, see Scotch & Friedman, 2014), both confront issues of accessibility. Langevin does so by virtue of his support for an expanded role for government, and Abbott’s travels across Texas have apparently led to expanded accessibility at many hotels and the places Abbott visited (Tilove, 2013). At the same time, it is clear that in terms of constituencies and ideologies, these are two very different individuals who at bottom work on disability issues in very different ways.
Additional Presentational Challenges
The individuals with disabilities discussed so far are people who have made it to the top of their professions as politicians. They may have experienced some stigma and some doubts, but most of them found ways to establish credibility, and there are fewer illustrations of out-and-out stigma in their stories than one might have expected. Is anyone really going to tell a decorated veteran or someone who has overcome significant obstacles that he or she cannot do the job—especially if the ideology, party, or personal characteristics of the politician in question are in tune with those of his or her constituency and the times? In that sense, some politicians with disabilities would, in the right circumstances, seem to have an edge. It is clear that many of the politicians studied here are at the pinnacle of their careers and have worked out the kinks.
But despite the successes they have enjoyed, are there ways in which their disabilities have been obstacles, and if so, to what extent? Though this is a limited sample, and the information about the sample is limited, it seems clear that stigma remains, and that it may only loom larger as more people with disabilities attempt runs for public office.
At the most basic level, simple accessibility is something that should not be taken for granted, especially if a politician’s disability is severe or resources to accommodate an impairment are unavailable. Traveling with a portable ramp, for example, mitigates for Representative Langevin the chance of finding himself in a place that lacks wheelchair access (Scotch & Friedman, 2014). Similarly, and despite his political conservatism, Governor Abbott sometimes characterizes himself as a “door-opener” because of the improvements in accessibility around the state his roles as Texas attorney general and governor have generated; for instance, his appointment as state attorney general in the 1990s led to the retrofitting of the Texas Supreme Court building (Tilove, 2013). “That’s a classic example of how I’ve been a door-opener,” Abbott said. And it’s but one example: “Because of the multitude of places I go to, there are places that are accessible now that in the past were not accessible, because they will ensure that a person like me they are going to be accessible for” (Tilove, 2013).
During the 2014 gubernatorial campaign, Abbott said of his personal example: “It’s opened horizons for employers, for restaurants, for other facilities that will open themselves up, realizing you’ve got the attorney general, and maybe the governor, who can succeed in a wheelchair, maybe we should hire someone. It opens the vision for so many other people and, through that, I have opened doors that may never have been opened or would have taken years to open” (quoted in Tilove, 2013).4
Beyond accessibility issues, politicians with disabilities may still need to explain aspects of their conditions. For example, as a novice who made an unsuccessful run for a congressional seat shortly after being seriously injured piloting a helicopter in Iraq, Senator Tammy Duckworth on several occasions felt it necessary to explain her condition to voters:
She also told the Times that as an amputee, voters should be prepared to see her fall down from time to time. “Amputees fall down a lot—it’s just the nature of being an amputee—so you’ll probably see that,” she said. “I’m learning to tuck and roll really well.
I am right handed. My arm is stuck in this position, and I cannot turn it so I cannot eat with this arm. I had to learn to use chopsticks with my left hand, talk about traumatic. When you write you know how you turn; I can’t do that. I can control my left hand just enough to be able to write. I have always had very poor handwriting, but now I have a really good excuse.
Similarly, Cyrus Habib, in Washington State, described the stereotypes he confronted while campaigning door-to-door in his home district: “It happened not infrequently that people seeing me walk up the front steps would assume that I was with community services for the blind,” said Habib. “They’d be surprised when they answered the door and I’d say, ‘No, I’m running for office.’ Then they became much more guarded” (quoted in Banse, 2013).
In another case, blindness was likely one of the many factors, though by no means the most important one, contributing to the short duration in New York of the governorship of David Paterson (2008–2010). After a successful career as a state legislator, Paterson unexpectedly found himself catapulted into the governorship when the former governor Elliot Spitzer resigned over his role in a call-girl scandal that had received national publicity. Press accounts chronicled a favorable start to Paterson’s gubernatorial tenure.
Paterson, who had spent decades in the state Senate and served as Spitzer’s lieutenant governor, offered a friendly and familiar face to the mandarins who packed the State Assembly for his oath of office ceremony. And he made history just by showing up, as the first African American to assume the job and one of the few legally blind people ever to hold high office in this country (Segal, 2008).
David Paterson was sworn in as governor yesterday before a crowd of lawmakers who chanted his name and cheered his message of unity in a state eager to move past his predecessor’s sordid and speedy political collapse.
(“N.Y. Governor Inaugurated,” 2008)
It was not primarily responses to Paterson’s disability that eroded the initial good will experienced by the new governor. Economically difficult times did not help. In addition, experts following the chain of events surrounding the rapid decline in Paterson’s popularity describe what would seem to be failures in Paterson’s leadership, citing “a chronic problem with making decisions [and] a habit of telling people what they want to hear” (Hammond, 2010), along with what have been described as some “messy personal relationships” (Louis, 2010). Several sources have also suggested that Paterson’s blindness contributed to an overdependence on a select group of staffers, which may have isolated the governor from a broader set of influences (Hammond, 2010; Louis, 2010).
Whether or not this was the case, the perceptions like these of outsiders suggest two things about the issues candidates with disabilities confront. First, disability stereotypes may particularly surface when a campaign is struggling. Paterson found himself in political trouble for a host of reasons, and it is not surprising that his blindness became a focus when people were otherwise expressing general unhappiness with the governor. Relatedly, it is important to remember that it is difficult to separate the impact of a disability from the personality of the individual candidate or the context in which the candidate is campaigning; it is easy for outsiders to overfocus on a person’s disability, whether or not the person with the disability himself sees disability relevance.
Beyond the stereotypes, what challenges do candidates with disabilities face as they navigate the political landscape, and what strategies have they used to respond? Candidates can choose to downplay the extent of their disabilities (Roosevelt, East) or can confine their disability-related work to behind-the-scenes efforts (Roosevelt, Dole). Alternatively, they can attempt to cast their disabilities in a positive light, in the process demonstrating ways in which their conditions actually help them connect with their constituents (recall Abbott reminding constituents of his “spine of steel” or Duckworth highlighting the plus side of her “bonus time”). Finally, they can make disability one of the issues they choose to work on, perhaps raising the awareness of many of their constituents in the process (Langevin).
The effectiveness of compensating strategies may vary based on the particular impairment of the candidate or politician. The public may now be more accepting of candidates who have physical disabilities, but a greater stigma may still attach to mental impairments, such as serious depression or PTSD, and these conditions may still be thought to disqualify individuals from holding public office, even when they are being successfully treated. Mental disabilities would be an interesting focus for future research.
Additional options may become increasingly relevant as more candidates with disabilities seek political office. First, candidates with disabilities can certainly claim that disability has contributed to their ability to be creative. For example, running for a New Jersey seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2008, Dennis Shulman (Democrat) argued that he should be the first blind person elected to Congress since 1935 because his disability would help him see solutions others overlook (Berman, 2007).6 Shulman lost the election but garnered what was considered a surprising 42% of the vote (Berman, 2007).
A number of factors contributed to the strong showing made by candidate Shulman, who was a political novice—including the Democratic tide in 2008, a vulnerable incumbent, and a strong Shulman campaign. His presentation of himself as “problem-solver” appeared to be particularly effective because he was able to contrast it with an alternative characterization of his opponent, Republican incumbent Scott Garrett, as an ideologue who was too entrenched to be effective. “What people are looking for today is not an ideologue, they want someone who’s going to take a fresh look at a problem and solve it. That’s been my forte in life. Not out of my choice, but out of necessity” (quoted in Berman, 2007).
Moving from how one presents oneself as a candidate to how one presents the issues one chooses to focus on, another strategy open to candidates with disabilities is to fit disability into a broader political agenda. Put differently, a candidate can choose to highlight issues of relevance to a broad set of constituents and can go out of his or her way to include people with disabilities in this group.
For example, Cyrus Habib, who is not only lieutenant governor of Washington State but also one of the few Iranian Americans to be elected to a state legislature (“Candidate Makes History,” 2012), seems to be doing just this. Whether the topic deals with legislation to cap drug prices, improve transportation, or make legislative hearings more accessible for all, Habib consistently references people with disabilities in the justifications for his actions:
By capping the copay, we are ensuring that those with chronic conditions or serious illnesses, which often includes seniors and people with disabilities, are not forced to go into debt just to pay for their treatment.
(Sen. Habib bill will cap out-of-pocket costs for prescription drugs, 2016)
Legislation to facilitate the adoption of ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft cleared its final hurdle today and is headed to the Governor’s desk for his signature. . . . “As someone who is blind, I rely on ride sharing services to get around, as do many people who are disabled, don’t own cars, or need to avoid driving intoxicated,” said Habib. “This legislation is a responsible step forward for our state, to allow these services to grow while keeping everyone safe. I’m tremendously encouraged that even on complicated issues like these, with many interested parties, companies like Uber and Lyft were able to come together with local governments, taxi drivers and insurance companies to find a solution that worked for everyone.”
(“Sen. Habib Ride Sharing,” 2015, April 17)
“All the special interests have lobbyists here at the capitol, but ordinary people too often have a tough time having their voices heard in the process,” said Sen. Cyrus Habib, D-Kirkland and sponsor of the bill. “If you can’t take time off of work or school, have a disability or live on the other side of the state, you might not be able to take a day to come to Olympia to testify for two minutes on a bill. But your voice still needs to be heard, and this bill offers a way to make that happen.”
(“Sen. Cyrus Habib Pushes Bill,” 2015, April 15)
Finally, whether it goes with the territory or whether some candidates just happen to have particular types of personalities, many politicians with disabilities have reputations for deflecting concerns about their disability quite naturally, through humor. For example, Senator Max Cleland has been described as “roaring with laughter when anyone jokes about his infirmity” (Allen-Mills, 1996). New York’s Governor Paterson, who is blind, quipped, “You want to get drug dealers off the street, give me a driver’s license” (quoted in O’Shaughnessy, 2008).
Similarly, during his first campaign for office, Tony Coelho (D-CA, U.S. House of Representatives, 1979–1991), who has epilepsy, was confronted with a situation where his opponent asked a crowd at a luncheon, “What would you think if Coelho went to the White House to argue a very critical issue for you and had a seizure?” (Coehlo, Tony, 2017). Coehlo responded to the press, “Well, in the 13 years I have served in Washington I knew a lot of people who went to the White House and had fits. At least I’d have an excuse” (Coehlo, Tony, 2017).
Disabilities have become more accepted and less stigmatized in American society and around the world, yet stereotypes persist that shape public perceptions of individuals with disabilities. Such stereotypes may be of particular importance to people with disabilities who enter politics, a context in which perceptions of competence are particularly salient. What lessons have been learned from examining the backgrounds of some of the thus-far relatively few politicians with disabilities who have attempted or have actually achieved positions of high political office in the United States? What can people with disabilities aspiring to political office take away from such an analysis? And what can a social science lens contribute to a broader understanding of disability and identity?
First, it is worth emphasizing that, more so than at earlier points in time, when the norm was to keep disability hidden as much as possible, politicians with disabilities today do indeed have choices, including decisions about, on the one hand, how involved to get in disability policy and, on the other, how much personal information about their disability they wish to disclose. In fact, the majority of the politicians delineated here have to some extent found ways to present their disability in a public context, by using it to their advantage in campaign ads (Abbott, Cleland, Shulman); including disability concerns in a broader policy context, as when advocating on transportation issues (Habib); making disability one of their policy specializations (Langevin); or, sometimes, even expressing a willingness to openly discuss details of their conditions (as Duckworth did during her first run for a House of Representatives seat). It is worth noting that these politicians also are making choices about how to balance descriptive and substantive representation. Although all of them would probably be glad to serve as role models and as examples of people who have made it to the top of their professions, there is clearly variation in the substantive representation they wish to provide. Thus, while Governor Abbott sees himself as a “door opener” for other wheelchair users, the conservatism of his Texas constituents and his own values pointing up the importance of independence limit his advocacy for government’s role on disability issues. In contrast, Rep. Langevin, former Senator Dole (in a behind-the-scenes way), and lieutenant governor Habib are more likely to be advocates for government intervention. Politicians today, on balance, may be more likely to disclose or advocate about disability, and their level of disclosure or advocacy depends on a host of political and personal factor, including the nature of their constituency, their party affiliation or ideology, their personal background and socialization, and perhaps the nature and severity of their disability. Additionally, career variables (whether a politician is seeking or has achieved a political office, how long he or she has held office, and the specific office in question (local, state, national) may be relevant.
That said, challenges clearly remain. There are, of course, basic issues of physical accessibility, for example, for wheelchair users or candidates with visual or hearing impairments. The apparently few politicians with disabilities points to the unchartered territory of how these concerns will be faced. Even more, the history of stigma and “incompetence” long associated with disability means that more than other candidates, candidates with disabilities need to establish credibility with their electorates. Thus today, at least in the upper echelons of political office, the need for a compelling or even heroic story—as is the case with military veterans or, more recently, people who have come back from serious illness or injury—shapes the candidate pool. It is noteworthy that virtually all the politicians characterized here fit this category; none was born with his or her disability.
But how have politicians thus far overcome these challenges? Acknowledging these presentational choices, a candidate or politician with a disability needs to recognize that he or she is, first and foremost, a politician vying for office within a particular electorate. As with other candidates, rising through the political ranks (e.g., Cleland, Abbott, Langevin) and being willing to lose some elections before achieving office (Duckworth) are all part of the political process. Similarly, recognizing what strategy will work within a given electorate or political context makes sense for candidates with disabilities in the same ways it matters to other candidates. Thus, Shulman’s losing congressional campaign in New Jersey nevertheless presented him as someone who could be trusted as a problem-solver. It is possible that this approach could have gained some traction because his incumbent opponent was considered by many to be a fairly rigid political ideologue. Abbott’s “spine of steel” commercial worked well in the conservative and self-reliant state of Texas. Additionally, presenting oneself as someone able to overcome obstacles, being forthright with constituents when necessary, and invoking humor to ease lingering discomfort are among the tools of the trade that can serve candidates well.
The bottom-line challenge for politicians with disabilities may be even more basic than designing solid campaign strategies. The next step needs to focus on finding ways to encourage more people with disabilities to step into the political pipeline in the first place. As social norms become more favorable and as activists continue their efforts to effect positive change, future success will be ever-more possible.
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(1.) It is quite likely that, in fact, as is the case with members of other underrepresented groups, politicians with disabilities may need to be better prepared than their nondisabled counterparts.
(2.) In more recent times, we now know that president John F. Kennedy’s Addison’s disease and back problems were more severe than had been made known. And, after being shot on the campaign trail, George Wallace nonetheless served as governor of Alabama, using a wheelchair.
(3.) Abbott’s Democratic opponent in the 2014 campaign was roundly criticized for running an ad that many thought insulted Abbott’s disability. The ad opened showing a wheelchair and by referencing the accident that had left Abbott paralyzed. The ad noted: He [Abbott] sued and got millions.” It then accused Abbott, as Texas’s attorney general, of hypocrisy, saying he has spent “his career working against other victims” who wanted to pursue lawsuits (Montgomery, 2014). While many felt that attacking someone for disability-related reasons was a below-the-belt move, others saw the ad as a positive, indicating that the image of a wheelchair in a political context had become normalized.
(4.) Similarly, a politician who is blind, such as former New York governor David Paterson, needs to think about what mechanisms will be needed to get through the voluminous reading associated with the job (“Paterson’s eyes,” 2008; “How David Paterson Gets His News,” 2009), and a politician with a hearing impairment needs to enhance access to other people’s conversations.
(5.) As Duckworth became more comfortable with her disability and as she became a more seasoned campaigner, she seems to have become less likely to point up the details of her disability; a focus on disability issues especially as they are relevant to veterans does appear to be part of her political agenda (Friedman & Scotch, 2013).
(6.) Had Shulman been elected he would also have been the first rabbi to ever serve in Congress.