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Politicians with Disabilities: Challenges and Choices  

Sally Friedman and Richard K. Scotch

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.