Just to be mentioned, named, explicitly by the word "disability" was enough to trigger an outpouring of response and accolade from Americans with disabilities, their families, and those who advocate for accessibility, equal opportunity, and disability rights. In President-elect Joe Biden's victory speech delivered on November 7, he spoke the word "disability" one time. By my count, he said about 1,553 words. Why is this one such a big deal?
The phrase that has been getting attention and that I'm specifically referring to is this one: "We must make the promise of the country real for everybody — no matter their race, their ethnicity, their faith, their identity, or their disability."
This is the same phrase that has been making rounds on social media, and even mainstream media to a lesser extent — including by CNN's Jake Tapper in a segment as they discussed Biden's speech.
Certainly, they're powerful words, presidential in tone and American in sentiment. Making the promise of the country real for everybody is a fairly succinct way of summarizing the American journey, past, present, and ongoing. So again, why is it a big deal to promise American opportunity to every American without regard to "their disability?"
Maybe to get closer to the answer we need to zoom out a little. Maybe it wasn't only about this one sentence or that one word, but when and why President-elect Biden spoke them. Here's some context of what came before and after:
The American story is about the slow, yet steady widening of opportunity.
Make no mistake: Too many dreams have been deferred for too long.
We must make the promise of the country real for everybody — no matter their race, their ethnicity, their faith, their identity, or their disability.
America has always been shaped by inflection points — by moments in time where we’ve made hard decisions about who we are and what we want to be.
At this point of his speech, Joe Biden was talking about dreams deferred and inflection points. An inflection point is where a curve changes direction — up or down, better or worse, more or less. Taken together and with a bit more context to round it out, here is my attempt to explain why so many people were so touched by the proclamation of one word. President-elect Biden:
- Acknowledged that he believes the promise of the country is not yet real for everybody;
- Named classes of people for whom that might be the case, including "disability" among them; and,
- Identifies inflection points, which are moments of change, by definition.
So if Joe Biden's reference to disability has been so meaningful and impactful, I think it may mean that people find significance in the mere acknowledgment of struggle and hope in the promise of the country. If I'm right, it's a remarkable moment that is so beyond politics; it's a commentary on the delivery of basic civil rights that have been promised in laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act.
This is what the speech meant to Jill Feder, glossary editor at Accessibility.com:
The disability community’s needs have often been indirectly addressed by politicians through widespread directives that also happen to affect our community, like healthcare. However, we are never recognized as a marginalized identity group akin to race, sexual identity, gender identity, or the like. And even if we are acknowledged as that, we seem to be the stepchild of identity groups that no one bothers to discuss. Many times, as a disabled person, I feel ignored or excluded because of discussions of marginalized people that seem to include every identity under the sun but mine.
Joe Biden went where no one else has. Not only did he specifically point us out, but he did so in his debut address. He grouped us right up there next to other marginalized groups. He showed the world that we exist, and that we deserve to have a seat at the table. It brought tears to my eyes that I was seen and affirmed by those with authority for the first time ever.
Alex Dacy is the founder and owner of WheelchairRapunzel. On Saturday night, she tweeted:
Biden just mentioned disability while talking about equal opportunity in America during his victory speech.
As a disabled American, that means everything to me.
I reached out to Alex with the question, "Would you like to provide an explanation of why President-elect Biden mentioning disability means everything to you?" In her answer, Alex pointed to the phrase that Biden spoke as well as the coverage from Jake Tapper (including his mention of the #CripTheVote movement), and said:
Two very big things for the disability community.
Two mentions of our existence.
Two chances to feel seen.
Two ways to know our voices are being heard.
Could it be pandering or tokenism? "It doesn’t matter," Alex says. "It means that disability is being included in important conversations and THAT is hope. Hope for a better life for disabled children."
Thirty years into the post-Americans with Disabilities Act world, it shouldn't be a big deal when an incoming president uses the word "disability" in a speech, but clearly it was and many Americans were touched to hear it.