Associated Press / CBS DFW - October 10, 2014
If Wendy Davis Thinks She Can Win an Election by Pointing Out Her Opponent's Disability, She's Wrong
Ben Dryfuss, Mother Jones - October 10, 2014
My reaction to this ad wasn’t, “Wow, that’s offensive!” It was, “Huh. That’s a bad idea."
The point of the ad isn’t that Greg Abbott is disabled, which would be no surprise to anyone in Texas anyway. The Davis campaign is saying that Abbott is a hypocrite who will deny rights and benefits to others that he has used himself.
The ad also makes a more subtle policy point that Abbott takes a very narrow approach to disability rights cases. The specific case cited in the ad is typical of how disability rights laws have been weakened over the last two decades … by gradually narrowing the definition of who is disabled. By ruling that an amputee wasn’t disabled, he denied her the right to even try her discrimination case. He shut the courtroom door on her. Abbott isn’t unique in this. It’s a pretty standard conservative approach to civil rights laws, and Greg Abbot is a conservative. It’s just a bit surprising that his own disability experience wouldn’t give him a slightly better understanding of how disability can take many forms, and that disability discrimination doesn't happen only to wheelchair users.
The problem is that this is a point better made by disability groups and people familiar with disability issues. It is a risky argument for a non-disabled politician to attempt. Plus, the Davis campaign could have made these points without using the wheelchair picture. That seems to be the sticking point. It makes the ad seem like an attempt to “use” Abbott’s disability without actually saying anything negative about it. The result is that they look like they're saying something nasty about his disability when really, they're not. That's not despicable; that's sloppy and stupid.
Disability images are powerful, and sometimes they “say” things to people that you can’t control. They should be used with great care. And liberal Democrats should never assume that their social progressivism on other matters means they understand disability issues, or that they are immune from criticism if they screw up with disability themes. Whether on not they are actually offended, Republicans will happily use the idea of offense against you. Being right and having a valid point isn’t enough.
Maybe it should be a rule of thumb for non-disabled politicians … don’t use disability imagery in political ads unless you really, really know what you are doing. And given how few people do know what they are doing, it may be best not to use disability imagery at all.