“To watch the shift from us having to beg candidates — like literally beg candidates — to include the word ‘disability’ as they rattled off diversity categories to [them] coming to us to say, ‘I want to engage with your folks’ … [this] was such a powerful shift,” said Rebecca Cokley, founder and director of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress, a progressive policy think tank.
A 2017 bill poised to slash Medicaid coverage — which was introduced by GOP lawmakers and which Trump supported — became a flashpoint for many in the community. Advocates came out in force to protest the proposal on Capitol Hill, and dozens even staged a “die-in” at the door of Senate Majority Leader Mitch Mconnell’s office. In widely publicized photos, security forcibly arrested many of these protesters, dragging some from their wheelchairs.
“I think the increased media attention on those protests definitely shaped how the emerging field of candidates … treated the disability community,” Cokley said. “We saw a shift in the power dynamic. It went from candidates treating disabled people like a photo op — almost like a puppy — to actively treating us as engaged voters and stakeholders.”
Cokley said that social media also “blew open the doors” for community activism and coordination. In particular, the nonpartisan #CripTheVote hashtag has given people with disabilities, who account for 20% of the U.S. population, a way to unite and amplify the power of their voting bloc. Disability advocate Tiara Mercius described #CripTheVote — launched by disability activists Alice Wong, Gregg Beratan, and Andrew Pulrang in 2016 — as a “virtual coffee shop” for people with disabilities to discuss what they want out of elected officials.
Cokley said that nearly all the candidates with whom she consulted told her they had staff assigned to monitor the hashtag #CripTheVote. Taking advantage of this attention from campaigns — as well as their wide reach on Twitter — the movement’s co-founders put out an open invitation for presidential candidates or President Trump to join them in a live Twitter chat. Warren and Buttigeg both took them up on the offer.