In response to the lack of disability representation in the 2016 Presidential Election, disability rights activists Andrew Pulrang, Gregg Beratan and Alice Wong started the #CripTheVote social media movement. Their primary motive was to increase the visibility of disability issues in the American political landscape.
Nearly four years later, more Democratic presidential candidates than ever before are finally including disability issues in their platforms and listening to the needs and opinions of people with disabilities. Disabled people constitute the largest minority population in the U.S.: one in four American adults have at least one form of disability. Yet, until now, this population has been largely silenced and ignored by politicians.
Early in the election season in 2019, several democratic candidates unveiled disability policy proposals, including Senator Kamala Harris (who dropped out of the race in December), former Major Pete Buttigieg and former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro (who dropped out of the race earlier this month).
The new year was met with a newly developed disability policy plan by Senator Elizabeth Warren. Her plan acknowledges the intricate intersectional identities that many people with disabilities have. One way that she has addressed this point was when Warren discussed the disproportionately high incarnation rates of people with disabilities, especially those of color, and thus indicating that criminal justice reforms must include people with disabilities. Warren has already received praise from the disability community for constructing a plan that is the most representative of such a diverse population, touching upon each facet of their lives.
The senator tweeted, “All policy issues are disability policy issues, which is why I’ve approached many of my previous plans with a disability rights lens, from criminal justice reform to ensuring a high-quality public education for all, to strengthening our democracy.”
In a recent op-ed in Fortune, Warren explains that the core of her plan to protect the rights and equality of people with disabilities is ensuring that technology advances in a way that promotes independent living and accessibility. “As our society becomes more advanced,” she writes, “technology plays a bigger role in our lives. These technological advancements have brought many positive changes for people with disabilities, improving their health, their safety, and the accessibility of our society. But as our world becomes more dependent on these current and emerging technologies, the risk of alienating or unduly burdening people with disabilities increases.”
Society has never been as technologically advanced as it is today. However, the accessibility of such technologies continues to be merely an afterthought of designers and engineers. For example, voice assistant devices, like Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa, has changed the daily lives of many, relying on their voices to have the virtual assistants make reservations or turn off the lights. Such a pleasant convenience to the mainstream population can present itself to be a life-changing device for people with limited mobility. However, 7.5 million people have speech impediments, and more than 3 million people stutter. Speech disabilities are often accompanied by other conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), cerebral palsy and traumatic brain injury. These people can’t reap the benefits of virtual assistant devices because they are not programmed to understand different speech patterns.
Another example of how technology fails people with disabilities is ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft. Ride-share can be most beneficial for people who either do not or cannot drive, which includes people with mobility or dexterity issues. But these ride-sharing apps have been notoriously shamed for having substandard or non-existent service for riders in wheelchairs.
Warren’s disability plan—which also addresses affordable healthcare and equal opportunities in education—calls for technology to advance the livelihoods of Americans with disabilities, not to work against them. For Warren’s plan to become a reality, developers, engineers and innovators need to put their disabled customers at the forefront when creating technology and designing its functionality. For that to happen, companies and businesses must first be aware of the gap that exists in technology now for people with disabilities and then include them in the enhancement and reprogramming of such technology.
All of this calls for a reframing of disability in the structural and cultural fabrics of society. Just as Warren did, one has to directly include people with disabilities to present such a comprehensive plan, in all and any sectors and fields, that aligns with the disability community’s mantra: “Nothing about us, without us.”