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.