Image vs. Issues: Where Is Your Focus in the Wake of the Wheelchair Campaign Ad?

By Michelle Colvard, Abilities Expo Ambassador

Does a person with a disability serve our community the best?

By now, you have probably heard all of the hoopla over the ad that Wendy Davis' campaign ran that featured the imagery of an empty wheelchair. The ad charges that Greg Abbott received millions from a lawsuit settlement after a tree fell on him and caused his disability, and that he hypocritically later changed the rules to make it more difficult for other victims to receive large settlements due to similar situations. Some have argued that this ad was an offensive personal attack on Mr. Abbott's use of a wheelchair. Some even appear to take issue with the imagery of the wheelchair itself. It's certainly provocative, although we also can have a separate conversation about why the image of a wheelchair strikes such a nerve and seems so "taboo."

Greg Abbott's Campaign Ads and Disability Commentary

I once met Greg Abbott, and found him to be a likable-enough guy. We had a great conversation about how the fact that we use wheelchairs is really irrelevant when it comes to doing our respective jobs (provided that there are not barriers, of course). In other words, we shouldn't be judged on whether or not we can do the job just based upon the fact that we use a wheelchair. I agreed with his statement—the fact that I use a wheelchair is definitely irrelevant when it comes to my work, and it most certainly does not keep me from quite capably getting my job done. But not everyone has had the same opportunities for education that we've had, and there are still a lot of employment barriers for people with disabilities. And most recently, all of this controversy has got me to thinking…by Mr. Abbott's own logic, if his wheelchair use is irrelevant, then who really is the best candidate to advocate on behalf of all Texans, including those with disabilities? 

Greg Abbott himself has aired several ads that prominently showcase him sitting in his wheelchair. It's remarkable that we've evolved from the days that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt took great care to not show his wheelchair to the press. Instead, Mr. Abbott has stated that by showing his wheelchair in the ads, he wanted to show that "he was able to overcome a life-changing accident" and "demonstrate to Texans that [he] was able to bring that very same fortitude to addressing the challenges that Texans face." 

I agree with Mr. Abbott that sometimes living life in a wheelchair can make you tougher. But I also think that just because a political candidate uses a wheelchair, it doesn't necessarily translate that he's the person who will ensure that other people with disabilities get a fair shake. So, we should use this opportunity to take a closer look at what the candidates are actually saying about issues that are important to those of us people with disabilities, and what they are actually doing to protect our rights.  

Wendy Davis in Person to Discuss Texas Disability Issues

On September 24, 2014, gubernatorial candidates were invited to attend the Texas Disability Issues Forum in Austin. This was a non-partisan forum that was organized by the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, Disability Rights Texas, Disability Voting Action Project, ADAPT, The Arc of Texas, Texas Parent to Parent and about 50 other organizations. This forum was an opportunity for voters to learn about the positions and potential policies of candidates running for Governor, Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General as they relate to issues affecting Texans with disabilities.

Texas' Empty Wheelchair Campaign

Wendy Davis participated in the forum in person. It's disappointing that Mr. Abbott did not attend this forum, although according to the organizers, Mr. Abbott was the only Republican candidate for statewide office to fill out the group's questionnaire. You can view Mr. Abbott's survey responses here, and you can view Ms. Davis' survey responses here

I have been in a wheelchair since the age of ten. Almost 25 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, I still find absurd barriers and injustices exist. I even have a hard time getting to my designated polling location because of wheelchair inaccessibility. I've spent the last five years trying to bring the issues of inaccessibility at my polling location to someone's attention, and I've been repeatedly ignored, although I finally seem to be making some traction lately. So I can assure you—the fact that I use a wheelchair will not be irrelevant when I cast my vote in November.

No matter what side of the aisle we're on, it's important for us to educate ourselves and not just assume that someone in a wheelchair is going to be the one to stick up for us. I'm an independent, and I don't care whether someone is a Republican or a Democrat, or whether or not they use a wheelchair. I care about what the candidates are actually saying, their past actions and what their policies might mean for me, my family and friends, and for my state.  Which candidate do you feel will best represent you and the issues that you care about? What has their past shown us about the type of leader they will be in the future?

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