PHOTO BY LAURA KIESEL
NEW HAMPSHIRE—When I was first offered the opportunity to report on candidate events taking place in New Hampshire the week before the state’s primary, my first instinct was to offer an emphatic, “Yes!”
However, due to my disability—which includes a connective tissue disorder that makes it difficult to sit and (especially) stand for prolonged periods of time, leads to temperature sensitivity, and can cause severe drops in blood pressure followed by vertigo and lightheadedness—I had to seriously consider whether I could even realistically do it.
After some deliberation, I decided I would attend three carefully chosen events with three separate candidates over the course of 24 hours: former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, US Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and Vermont Sen. (and winner of the 2016 Granite State primary) Bernie Sanders.
All three candidates stood out for me because they have been more actively courting the disability vote, as compared to their peers in the candidate pool.
Buttigieg was one of the first of the top five contenders to release a comprehensive disability policy plan on his site, while Warren and Sanders released theirs in January. Though their plans came later, Warren and Sanders outdid Buttigieg in breadth, scope, and substance (more on those later). Additionally, my connections to both Warren and Sanders feel more personal, as I have been a Massachusetts resident for the past decade, and am a former Vermonter who lived in Burlington when Sanders made the leap from the House to the Senate. I’ve dealt with both their offices as a constituent and have been to their events, and so I was familiar with both of them before they became prominent presidential hopefuls.
Though my connections to “Mayor Pete” were more tenuous, I felt a certain draw to him as a veteran, having been raised by a combat veteran myself—my grandfather, who served in the Korean War—and also because he is the first viable out LGBTQ candidate in a presidential race.
Despite knowing people on the ground working for the respective campaigns of all three candidates, getting press passes to all of these events proved challenging. Out of other options, I RSVP’d to Buttigieg and Warren events via their campaign websites, noting that I am a journalist and that I needed ADA parking and seating accommodations.
For Sanders, I managed to get access to a private link to request press credentials to a closed Friday morning event at Saint Anselm College. The school’s communications director said on the phone that since they had just announced the event, and because I was early to register, I should be all set.
My first stop was at a Buttigieg event hosted by VoteVets last week at an American Legion post in Merrimack. When I drove up, a campaign staffer waved me aside to tell me they were rerouting eventgoers who weren’t in need of handicap parking to another lot down the road. They began to give me directions, but I interjected, flashing my handicap placard, and was directed to the end of the lot, where some spots had been reserved for disabled drivers.
I was impressed. However, the check-in process was more onerous than the parking. I waited more than 15 minutes in the press line, shivering in the sleet, leaning heavily on my cane, while many of my fellow reporters from bigger budget outlets cut in front of me, some literally elbowing me in the ribs to get ahead.
When I finally got to the person signing us in, they couldn’t find my name on their press list, but they were quick to write me in and give me my press sticker after I handed him my business card. I noted my disability and, as a result of standing for a long time, said I was starting to hurt. He told me the line would soon move quickly. But it didn’t. Another 10 minutes later, and we had barely advanced; I still hadn’t cleared the front door. My legs trembled. I felt like I was going to collapse.
When a different staffer came out to explain that it would be a while longer, I again mentioned that I had a disability and would need to sit soon. Without hesitation, she brought me up the short flight of stairs (and had to tangle with television reporters who at first refused to move) and into the room, even offering me a seat in the second row they had created out of a series of folding chairs. Other than three short rows on two sides, it was standing room only.
Though the event was supposed to start at 2:30 pm, other speakers didn’t get to the microphone until about 40 minutes later. Buittgieg didn’t arrive until nearly an hour after the event was scheduled to begin. The small space soon became sweltering. I passed the time ignoring the sweat trickling down my shirt by speaking to the people around me.
On my right, I met a group of high school seniors from California who had traveled all the way to New Hampshire to attend as many events as they could. An older woman to my left, fanning herself with a “Mayor Pete” sign, told me that coming from a veteran family, she felt like Buttigieg “got it” and had the right temperament to heal divisions seeded by Trump’s tenure. She also thought he could attract moderate Republican voters as well as independents.
When Buttigieg arrived, he spent about 10 minutes talking—mostly about his time in the service overseas. He then took a handful of questions from the audience, the last of which came from one of the high schoolers, a daughter of immigrants who are now naturalized. She asked how Buttigieg would reduce red tape and high costs associated with becoming a citizen. In response, Buttigieg blasted Trump’s policy of separating families and asserted that asylum seekers should be allowed to exercise their legal right to seek entrance into the US—to somewhat less enthusiastic applause from the audience than his more veteran-specific rhetoric.
I paused at Mayor Pete’s repeated use of the phrase “legal immigration” and his overemphasis on those who arrive here on work visas. His reply failed to address the recent public charge rule changes proposed by the Trump administration, set to go into effect later this month, that would deny US citizenship to those attempting to immigrate here legally who would need or could be projected to need public assistance programs like Medicaid and food stamps. The policy is not only classist, but outright ableist, as it would prevent immigrants with chronic illnesses and other preexisting conditions and limited financial resources from making the US their home.
Regarding healthcare, one audience attendee spoke about her husband’s inability to access certain specialists out of their home state after he suffered an injury that shattered his hip and required multiple surgeries and extended rehabilitative care. In response, Buttigieg promoted his “Medicare for All Who Want It” plan and focused on protecting and expanding on the Affordable Care Act. He then stated that patients would have access to out-of-state care under his plan, though did not specify how he would ensure that. A running theme for Buttigieg on healthcare seemed to be on cutting down bureaucracy and paperwork to reduce costs, and redirecting resources in this case to direct medical care.
The Warren event I picked down the road in Derry was at a much bigger venue, Tupelo Music Hall. There was a big lot, with plenty of regular and handicap-reserved spaces.
In the press line, it took 10 minutes to approve me for credentials, though I had both a text confirming my RSVP to the event as well as the name of the point person for media from the Warren campaign who had emailed to approve my registration. Yet Warren’s media rep for the event did not reply to my response inquiring about seating accommodations for disability. Once there, I had to twice tell the person registering me I needed to sit—soon. He was polite, but seemed to not understand the implications of what I was saying, even with me white-knuckling my cane.
After I entered the hall, easily more than quadruple the size of the American Legion I had been in earlier, there were several choices for seating. On the downside, due to the Buttigieg event running over time and the delay in getting my press pass from Warren’s people, all of the available seats were in the back of the venue. When I asked a staffer if I could get ADA seating since I could not stand or move around as freely to get video clips and pictures, she also didn’t seem to understand my question.
Too tired and in too much pain to pursue the matter, I let it go and and limped to the back. Like Buttigieg, Warren also talked for about 10 minutes, offering an abbreviated autobiography of her life before taking audience questions. Unlike Mayor Pete, she had a sign language interpreter on site, though it was hard to see her unless you were close to the front. In her short time, my senator also explicitly referred to “people with disabilities” more than once while on stage and underscored a need for a “Medicare for All” policy. She also said she would focus on the special housing needs of specific demographics, including disabled people (who make up more than 40% of our nation’s homeless population), and responded to a question on climate change, which she was quick to point out threatened “every single living thing” on the planet. Climate change disproportionately impacts disabled people, though preparedness and adaptation plans rarely figure us into equation. On the climate question, Warren also mentioned how pollution-spewing industries like coal factories are purposefully located in or near communities of color, and the adverse effects they had on the health of those residents.
In early January, Warren released her disability policy plan, which at the time was the most progressive of them all and drafted with the input of disabled activists. In particular, Warren’s plan would do away with the so-called “benefit cliff” for Social Security Disability Insurance that threatens recipients with losing all their benefits if they make a certain amount of monthly income. She also pledges to make changes to Supplemental Security Income (SSI), such as eradicating asset limits that keep recipients locked in poverty and often serve as a barrier to marriage.
Not to be outdone, Sen. Sanders released his own disability policy plan right ahead of the Iowa caucuses (caucuses themselves being an ableist relic). His way takes cues from Warren’s, but goes several steps further, such as increasing SSI benefit to 125% of the federal poverty line. Warren’s so far only meets the federal poverty guidelines (yes, current SSI payments are so pathetic they don’t even meet the federal poverty level). Regarding climate change, Sanders plans to create a $40 billion Climate Justice Resiliency Fund and to establish an office dedicated to climate resilience for disabled people.
I had been hoping to get to hear Sanders speak to some of these issues in person at the morning talk I planned to attend at Saint Anselm Friday morning. But at 10 pm the prior evening, the same communications director for the college who had indicated on the phone days before that I was registered sent me a terse and formal email denying my press pass without explanation. She instead encouraged me to take advantage of my stay in New Hampshire by “attending another event.”
I suspected this denial was because my media outlet was local and independent, and also that it may have had to do with my private note about needing disability accommodations for seating and parking. I emailed her back, writing, “… being denied access to a Sanders event—a candidate who champions for equal access and opportunities … is interesting and ironic. As a disabled reporter, I have to plan out my schedule carefully and days in advance. … I do not have the luxury to simply attend another event.”
She emailed me back close to midnight, explaining all the reasons they could not permit my entrance (and confirmed my inkling that a last-minute flood of requests from other outlets played a part in squeezing me out). I was confused, though, since she still offered me special parking, but did not respond to a subsequent email request for clarification.
People with disabilities make up one-quarter of the US population, yet we are often overlooked in public policy and face many obstacles in accessing the ballot box. Yet, with healthcare remaining one of the top concerns for most Americans, along with other issues that intersect heavily with disability rights such as housing, education, employment, and the environment, many Democratic candidates are gradually realizing they need to put disabled people in the forefront of their consideration if they want to win an election.
However, disabled journalists are underrepresented in bylines and with that, coverage of disability issues still remains relatively low. That doesn’t appear to be changing in 2020, 30 years after the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act. As my experiences this past week shows, we confront barriers in and when accessing candidate events. When we do get in, our perspectives are often sidelined, despite our lived experiences giving us valuable insight into these issues.
Hopefully, this will change with time. The sooner, the better.
This article was produced by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of its Manchester Divided coverage of political activity around New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary. Follow our coverage @BINJreports on Twitter and at binjonline.org/manchesterdivided, and if you want to see more citizens agenda-driven reporting you can contribute at givetobinj.org.