The U.S. presidential primaries are over! Release the attack ads.
Priorities USA, a progressive Super PAC, is working to label Donald Trump a bully, most recently by putting $20 million behind an ad called “Grace.” The spot features two parents of a child with spina bifida named Grace talking about how they felt when Trump mocked a disabled reporter—the New York Times writer Serge Kovaleski—last November. It’s received around 730,000 views on YouTube and widespread media coverage. The general consensus: One effective way to rally negative sentiments about Trump is to focus on his attacks on a group for whom nearly everybody has sympathy—people with disabilities.
“Grace” may well prove to be an effective ad. It’s exciting to see disability issues play a role in the campaign, and gratifying to see a politician take heat for humor that offended many people. The ad, however, also plays into stereotypes about disability, revealing tensions between disability-rights activists and mainstream politicians. Even elected officials and campaigns that want to support the disability-rights movement too often focus on parents instead of disabled people, on cute children rather than adults, and on white people with disabilities rather than the diverse community of people with disabilities.
Disability has received an unprecedented amount of attention in the 2016 election so far. Trump’s mockery galvanized protest among politicians and activists alike last November. As I reported for The Atlantic in January, the non-profit RespectAbility sent reporters to events across Iowa and New Hampshire to ask disability-related questions and persuaded every campaign except Trump’s and Cruz’s to fill out a detailed policy questionnaire. Online activist movements such as #CripTheVote have made it possible for disabled Americans to demand better political representation.
Most importantly, the Clinton campaign has consistently worked on this issue, starting in January when it released a detailed plan to help autistic people and their families. Disability has since become a regular feature of Clinton’s rhetoric. On the Friday before the New Hampshire primary, Clinton closed the debate by including “people with disabilities” in her list of groups whose rights needed defending, and she has kept the inclusion in her stump speeches ever since. While the Clinton campaign hasn’t commented on the record about its strategy, it seems to see the disability community as a natural constituency—and views Trump as vulnerable on these grounds.
For his part, Trump denied that he was insulting the disabled reporter last winter. In a speech in Sarasota shortly after the incident, he argued that he has spent tens of millions of dollars on the Americans with Disabilities Act, and he’s “proud of doing it.” He’s also tweeted that claim, although The Daily Beast reported that his real experience with the ADA involved extensive litigation over non-compliance. As for the mocking, he called his actions merely “expressive,” vowing, “I would never mock a person that has difficulty. I would never do that. I’m telling you, I would never do it.”
“Grace” opens with a man and a woman talking earnestly into the camera about Grace’s birth and diagnosis. We see a picture of an infant lying next to a wooden crucifix, likely a nod to moderate Christian voters who might reject Trump. Then the ad moves to pictures of Grace as a young girl with her family and friends. We’re told that she’s the “happiest child you’ve ever seen … she brings out the goodness in each person.” Then the mother pivots to Trump, as we get a clip of the candidate shaking his arms and using a funny voice in describing Kovaleski. Even children, the mother says, know never to mock Grace at school. Trump’s conduct, according to the father, “shows us his soul.”
Disability has a peculiar place in American society. Disabled individuals often evoke sympathy, but they also experience intense discrimination. Disabled children are routinely bullied, especially as they age. Disabled adults have widespread civil-rights protections under the ADA but still encounter enormous obstacles to work, independence, and community integration. Disability is an aspect of the human condition, yet “the disabled” are often isolated and marginalized.
It’s not clear that “Grace” will help with these problems. I spoke to a number of disability-rights activists about the ad. Each condemned Trump’s conduct and are glad to see him held accountable for it. They like the idea of using his insults as a campaign issue. Yet no one was entirely comfortable with the imagery.
Dominick Evans, a filmmaker and disability advocate, argued that people in the disability community are the only marginalized group routinely not allowed to speak for themselves. “If this was a story about LGBT discrimination, an LGBT person would be telling that story. It would be horrific for a video about how people of color are discriminated against by Donald Trump to not include any people of color, or for [there to be an ad] about sexism by Trump that does not include women,” he said. “It feels really exploitative to use this issue and speak about a disabled child and about disability and never include us in the discussion, at all.” Evans wishes Grace had a chance to speak on her own behalf, in part because he wants to see disabled people have control over their stories, but also because it would be more powerful. “Who is going to argue with a little girl?” he asked.
Alice Wong, the founder of the Disability Visibility Project, said the “aww” factor of a young girl with a disability would play well with donors and media, and she appreciated that the parents used the word “disability” rather than special needs. But she said the ad’s emphasis on Grace bringing out others’ goodness falls “into the trope of disabled people as these angelic, innocent creatures.” In her view, the parents in the ad are “framing their daughter as this vulnerable person who needs protection when disabled people have agency,” she said. “Sure, she is a child, and I understand how that's different compared to disabled adults. But infantilization is [the] message that comes across in this ad. Unfortunately, infantilization of disabled adults is pretty commonplace in the media.”
Vilissa Thompson, a disabled African American woman who founded Ramp Your Voice, added, “Disabled children's images and stories are always used to evoke the sympathy feels among members in society.” The images used are almost always of white children. She said she understands why Priorities USA turned to a nice white family for this ad—they want to sway the hearts and minds of moderate, white voters who might be offended by Trump—but it “says a lot about what face is used to get to the hearts of America.”
No matter how well intentioned campaigns may be, they may take a different approach than activists, even when they are working hard to court those groups. Activists want to move mainstream society to adopt new positions. Campaigns, and ad-makers at political-action groups, want to reach mainstream Americans where they are. Perhaps social change always requires activists to push politicians past their comfort zones.
It’s also good to know, though, that mocking people with disabilities comes with a heavy political price. Ironically, Trump’s insult has turned disability into a useful tool for Trump’s opponents. Inclusivity for people with disabilities is now a matter of presidential politics. That likely wasn’t Trump’s intention when he mocked that reporter months ago. But it’s a satisfying result.