This has been the strangest election cycle in my lifetime, although admittedly that is not particularly long. American optimism, usually critical to electoral success, has been overridden by a creeping pessimism. Eight years ago we united around a candidate who promised hope and change. Today, we stand divided between the mantras of disappointment or bitterness, both equally unfounded. We are convinced that no matter the route we are doomed to the status quo at best and disaster at worst.
Autistics and the disabled, feeling lost in the fog, find ourselves forgotten as the public’s attention turns toward the frivolous and away from policy. There has been little to no discussion in the mainstream media regarding how this election will affect disability rights, and many have begun to lose hope.
Yet, this lack of media coverage and public interest contradicts the true value this election has for those who identify as autistic or disabled, and its high value in the eyes of certain candidates. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has dedicated much of her life, on a political and personal level, to disability rights. Her policy positions on autism earned praise from the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. Her continued demonstrated interest in the cause of disability rights deserves to be a beacon of hope for those among us who have lost it.
But it is oftentimes not the optimists that make the news. In the few times that disability rights and autism have earned attention, it has been a result of the horrid spectre of ableism rearing its ugly head, rather than because of statements of support. Take, for example, the Republican nominee.
Yet, I have minimal interest in feeding the negativity and defeatism that has defined this election cycle. The American people deserve more than a campaign centered around lies, hatred, anger and bigotry. I fear that this debacle will turn my generation off from politics, and am convinced that regardless of the result it will do lasting damage to the American psyche.
Instead I seek to be a bearer of good news for autistic and disabled people across the country who find their voices lost amongst the sound and fury of an election season off the rails, who feel ignored by the major party candidates and by an American public who continue to focus on email scandals while disabled workers earn only 64 cents for every dollar their colleagues make, while the unemployment rate for the disabled is double the national percentage, while employers are still permitted to pay disabled workers below the minimum wage.
I believe that Hillary Clinton can be the American president the disabled community of this country has been waiting for: a champion of disability rights that can finally bring our issues to the forefront of American politics where they belong. She, more than any other candidate in the history of America, shows a unique understanding of the struggles that disability poses.
My connection with both of the Clintons is longstanding and deeply personal, beginning before I even knew who they were.
A little before the age of three, I stopped speaking. The Yale Child Study Center, a place where a young Hillary Clinton worked and cultivated a lifelong interest in children’s rights, saved my life. If it weren’t for the help I received there, as well as the love and support of my family and community, I would likely not have ended up a high school graduate, let alone a college student.
Even growing up in Westchester County, which has some of the best public schools in the country, it can oftentimes be humbling to remember how I close I was to a dramatically different, and likely worse, quality of life.
I have many friends who attended some of the best and wealthiest public school districts in the country who have found themselves abandoned by administrators who seek to isolate and force them out of the student body rather than give them the help they need and education they deserve. Even at specialized schools, disabled students are often subject to restraint and seclusion. Hillary Clinton is the only presidential candidate to even acknowledge these vital issues. As my voice slowly resurfaced, I relied heavily on my brother to serve as my interpreter. Through the sounds I would make he become a mediator between myself and the world.
And yet, there are millions of autistic people across the country who are able to communicate but unable to be heard. This ranges from those who can express but cannot speak to those who can speak but are not understood to those who can be understood but are unable to find someone who will listen.
It is as I began to recapture my voice that I first discovered the Clintons, then as a few pages in a children’s book on presidents my grandmother bought me for my birthday. I read that book with my mother almost every night for almost two years, cultivating in me a lifelong obsession with politics and a desire to one day seek public office. I felt a deeply personal connection with the Clintons, a connection even now I have difficulty expressing in words. I admired how, regardless of their struggles, they defied those who wished for their defeat and rose to the highest office in the land. I wanted to be like them and to emulate the compassion they showed for the people they served.
Living in their hometown might not have hurt my devotion to them either, and certainly contributed to eventually meeting them in person.
I first met Hillary Clinton around the age of five, right as my interest in politics was beginning to blossom. At the time she represented New York in the United States Senate.
It was a book signing. I remember striking up a conversation with a member of her staff, relaying useless information about presidents she probably already knew, completely unfazed by the how busy she obviously was.
For some reason, she took a liking to me and introduced me to Hillary Clinton. I remember my feeling of pride in being able to meet one of my personal heroes. I imagine that it might be comparable to what Christian children feel when they see Santa Claus. Here is a figure from my book, someone I idolized, there in front of me.
This would be far from my last encounter with the Clintons, and the staffer I had met then soon became a treasured friend and a very important part of my life. I soon began to be invited to book signings, events in the area and, when she first ran for president in 2008, campaign stops. I remember handing out fliers at my local train station reminding people to vote in the New York primary with my father and brother.
This was more than people being nice to me. For one of the first times in my life, I felt like my passions mattered and were something to be taken seriously. I felt like I was really being listened to, like what I had to say and what felt was important. Living in a society that often tells autistic people that our voices don’t matter and aren’t important, this carries considerable weight.
Most candidates for public office feel content addressing the major issues and ignoring the people that are impacted by them. They’re great at talking, but they’re terrible at listening. This becomes especially prominent when addressing issues of disability. Donald Trump doesn’t even mention the word disability on his website, yet he feels the need to comment about how vaccines cause autism on national television.
Hillary Clinton differentiates herself from almost every other politician through her passion for listening. She has a unique ability to ensure that voices are heard, and she utilizes that ability when crafting policy. Hillary Clinton is the only candidate with an extensive, detailed plan on how promote disability rights. That is because she is the only candidate who truly appreciates the power of listening and learning from people. That quality is essential in performing the responsibilities of public office generally and addressing issues facing the disability community specifically. It is that ability that will make her the best advocate we have ever had in the White House.
And so, I urge every person in America on the spectrum, every person in America living with disabilities, to go out and publicly support Hillary Clinton. We deserve to finally have our voices heard and we deserve a president who values our voices.