People with disabilities campaigning -- and winning -- office
October 25, 2006
Growing up legally blind, I never dreamed people like me would campaign for -- and win -- political office. But people with disabilities are doing just that.
Today, two people who are legally blind, David A. Paterson, a Democrat in New York, and Kristen Cox, a Republican in Maryland, are running for the position of lieutenant governor in their respective states. Paterson is the running mate of New York gubernatorial candidate and Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. Cox is the running mate of Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich.
"The selection of these individuals by prominent politicians (demonstrates) a view increasingly shared by society Š that the blind are as qualified as anyone else to take on important governmental responsibilities," said Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind.
Paterson and Cox are not hiding their disabilities. This is a welcome contrast from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's day. Back then, people with disabilities were expected to stay out of sight.
To get elected president, Roosevelt disguised the fact that he had become wheelchair-bound because of polio. Photographers weren't permitted to snap shots of him in his wheelchair. And many Americans weren't aware that he couldn't walk.
Until recently, only a few people with disabilities entered politics, and when they did, they usually kept their disability in the closet.
But Paterson and Cox are among a growing number entering the political realm and erasing the stigma. Paterson walks with the assistance of a "sighted guide," who introduces him to people. Cox uses a cane.
Their impairments don't prohibit them from leading active, independent lives. Paterson, minority leader of the New York state senate, runs in marathons. Cox, a parent, heads Maryland's cabinet-level department of disabilities.
If elected, Paterson and Cox could join a small but growing group of politicians with disabilities. Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., has a spinal cord injury. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., has dyslexia. And former Rep. Lynn Rivers, D-Mich., has bipolar disorder.
Americans are more willing to accept -- and even encourage -- people with disabilities to engage in the political arena.
This is partly because many people with disabilities are now more active and visible in American life.
And it is partly because one in five Americans has a disability, according to the U.S. Census. There are more than 37 million people with disabilities of voting age in the United States, according to the Disability Vote Project of the American Association of People with Disabilities.
With politicians who can empathize with folks with disabilities, our country can better address issues that disproportionately affect us, issues such as transportation, housing, health care and insurance.
People like Paterson and Cox can help give millions of folks with disabilities a sense that we can fully participate in the democratic process.
We are your classmates, your colleagues -- and, now, your candidates.
Kathi Wolfe is a writer and poet in Falls Church, Va. With the aid of a Puffin Foundation grant, she is writing a book of poems on Helen Keller. She can be reached at email@example.com.