The 2008 presidential election process is a gripping one indeed. I have relentlessly read commentary and watched convention coverage. Disability is threaded into this race in so many ways that I could not even begin to address them all here. But, when I watched the Democratic National Convention something unexpected happened. I was sitting in my living room as I watched Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa walk out onto the stage. As he emerged, so did a young woman who took her position to his right. He began to address the crowd in American Sign Language. "I'm happy to see so many people with disabilities here. I am proud to have your support for the Democratic Party." As a person who is fluent in ASL, I was shocked that I was watching a major politician walk out onto a stage and begin a speech in ASL. I looked around wishing I was not in the room alone; I desperately wanted to share this moment with someone. Not only was he was using ASL, but he did so remarkably well. It looked good; he signed clearly and comfortably. But this moment was pre-Palin, and the buzz was about to reach fever pitch.
Disability is not a common topic for national politics or presidential campaign speeches. The economy, the war, energy, healthcare and education are on the short list of what I expect to hear. Until recently, people with disabilities and/or disability rights advocates were rarely a constituency acknowledged as a political group in their own right amongst daily campaign buzz. Disability is rarely a social problem or cultural group that we openly talk about in national politics — except maybe in the limited contexts of discussing healthcare, war veterans, the surging population of older Americans, and "families." As Sarah Palin took her place on stage at the Republican National Convention, there it was, that star political topic of the past few decades: "the family." And who better to intertwine the two so beautifully? I am certainly not one to jump on the "family values" bandwagon. Conservatism hawking that term often reflects anything but valuing the families we have. But, like it or not, it is family politics which emerge as our access point into a dialogue on disability. Strange, yet unavoidable, bedfellows indeed. Under the cloak of "family politics," people with disabilities and their advocates — they could not possibly speak for themselves, could they? — have been hurled into the national spotlight. And all hail our messenger: Sarah Palin! Woe is me. This is a woman whose politics in general I profoundly disagree with. I appreciate her straightforwardness that she has a child with a disability, but to me that attitude should be a given and nothing extraordinary. Make no doubt about it, I am thrilled that we are having discussions about disability, but what a double-edged sword. She was hardly the person I was dreaming of to catapult disability to the center of our political universe.
But nevertheless, it is at the crossroads of families and disability that we find ourselves smack in the middle of a national political dialogue. It is at the site of a camera zooming in on baby Trig Palin's face where we are begged to ponder the fetuses, the children, and the education and services these kids will need in the future. There is so much that has not even begun to be talked about yet. We have not even mentioned the healthcare costs or the pain of dealing with the great bureaucracy of the federal government for help. For some, we do not even have to mention it because it is invoked. For those families that do have members with disabilities, they know. It makes perfect political sense that it would be addressed; it is a huge voting bloc that needed to be tapped. According to the US Census Bureau (2000), 40% of families have at least one family member with a disability. We are talking about millions and millions of people.
Disability and families are so intertwined. The politics of the family overlap with so many things such as gender, parenthood, reproductive rights, the ethics of medicine/prenatal care and what role our government should have in all of these things. How we expect families to respond to disability reveals not just how much or little our culture values persons with disabilities, but also our expectations of medicine, mothers, fathers, and siblings. Disability is the axis that most quickly and efficiently reveals deeply held beliefs about motherhood and reproduction. When we talk about disability in relation to these two things, we cut right to both personal and political angst and heartache. But finally, people might be talking to each other about disability and what it looks like both within and across families. Not only are they talking about it, but they are talking about it out loud, outside of their kitchens and above a whisper. Regardless of your politics, this is a good thing. It is impossible to survive on knowing glances and awkward silences alone. Until now many families have tried to do exactly that.
As a sociologist who is interested in the cultural meanings of bodies and as a person who makes disability culture a central part of my own life, it means something to me to hear the word disability in this campaign. It means something to see people chime in on the debate over prenatal testing and to see a senator use sign language at the beginning of a speech. But most importantly here, because I am a teacher I am elated at the opportunities all of this discussion brings. No, I do not think that the mere mentioning of disability by candidates or senators will change or even necessarily reflect the realities that those with disabilities and their families live. But I do think it gives those of us that teach the topic of disability to college students a rare opportunity to make classroom discussions fit right into the real world, reflect the latest news buzz, and engage directly with the politics of charged up young voters. When I was looking for a textbook to teach sociology of the family, I could not find a single one that mentioned disability. I put together a variety of my own texts and films and I bring in my friends who are activists to speak. The amazing thing is that my students continually amaze me with their genuine interest and curiosity. Disability and the family is by far the favorite topic of the course. No matter what my politics are, I now have a whole flood of material to work with.