Last fall, a fellow disability activist and close friend of mine introduced me to Bernie Sanders. From the moment I first heard his platform, I was hooked. After living abroad several years in a country with socialized medicine and heavily subsidized education, I was thrilled an American politician was proposing these policies here. Due to my own disabilities, the cost of healthcare has become exorbitant and becoming chronically ill forced me to leave my career in public service litigation to collect meager social security benefits. So, Bernie’s message resonated strongly with my own personal experience of being in the 99%.
I was so moved by his message that I began volunteering for the campaign, be it through phonebanking, texting or simply bringing his message to everyone I knew. I believed so strongly in the change he could effect that I even donated more money than I could otherwise afford to help his campaign succeed. And I quickly became part of the Bernie or Bust movement, believing his campaign’s message that Clinton didn’t care about anyone other than her special interest donors.
But I often struggled with his rhetoric on and lack of inclusion for people with disabilities in his stump speeches, acceptance speeches, debate performances, advertisements and campaign literature. Despite discussing issues that affect our daily lives like healthcare, income inequality, social security and criminal justice, he almost never mentioned the disabled population, which makes up 20% of the American electorate. He harped daily on how the Donald Trumps of the world try to divide us up based on our minority status but never even included disability as one of those dividing factors.
Meanwhile, I became more frustrated because Hillary Clinton was including us in every speech, ad campaign, debate performance and even intersectionality graphics of disabled people of color in her literature. She issued press releases supporting the Disability Integration Act, which requires Obamacare plans to cover long-term care for people with disabilities, and talked about sub-minimum wage, a construct by which employers can legally pay the disabled less than minimum wage. Bernie either never did this or lagged behind, as if he was only doing it because Hillary was. I sincerely felt as though Hillary was just paying lip service to us and that Bernie was simply uninformed.
So I began contacting the campaign as early as the fall to advise them on their disability outreach failures, as well as to communicate grave concerns the community was having with some on his policies. I tried every possible method of communication from emailing the campaign through the website and contacting them through social media, to direct emails and text messages to top political directors, including Jeff Weaver, BEGGING them to respond. I also discovered that I was not the only disability activist experiencing this very frustration with the campaign.
After weeks of being ignored, the day after the New York elections, I sent one final message to the campaign saying that I was going to withdraw my support and advise the community to do the same if they didn’t care enough to even respond to our pleas for representation. Finally, his political director, Billy Gendell, a non-disabled male, responded by scheduling a phone call with me. I was finally hopeful once again, but what came next was personally devastating. I began the conversation about the issues the community is having with his lack of rhetoric and lack of inclusion for people with disabilities, as I delineated in my emails. I sincerely wanted to help the campaign improve.
However, he quickly interrupted me from giving them advice, despite knowing my credentials and insisted that I get to my policy questions. But he asked that the answers remain “off-the-record” so that I could not share them with the community that was asking them. His answers provided no new information or specific methods by which to initiate these broad ideas. The only policy answer that wasn’t “off the record” was Bernie’s official statement on the opioid issue, sent to me via email. It said that chronic pain sufferers should seek yoga or guided meditation to ease our suffering.
I was shocked. These recommendations are ones given to chronic pain sufferers by uneducated individuals with zero medical understanding of pain and the neurological system. I immediately responded back to his email that he cannot expect an amputee with phantom pain to do yoga when in such dire pain that it causes his heart rate to soar and his blood pressure to plummet. I told him that it’s insulting to even insinuate such a thing. But, as, unfortunately, I expected, he never even replied, and I simply gave up trying to reach out.
Meanwhile, none of his policies for people with disabilities changed, and he made little to no effort to include us in his speeches, other than to occasionally discuss all disabled people in the context of social security, rather than his typical inclusion of only disabled veterans, as if only they matter because they became disabled at war. (And I gave him credit on facebook for doing this once at the Washington square speech and emailed the campaign to thank them for it, which went unanswered) But he continued to fail to mention or depict us in any of his speeches or ads.
The feeling of devastating disappointment and betrayal sank in. The thought of considering Clinton felt hypocritical of me. I told myself, “How can I support someone who probably cares more about Wall Street than me?” But I certainly couldn’t consider Donald Trump, who mocks disabled people and assumes we’re stupid enough to think that’s not what he was doing. So, begrudgingly, I told a Hillary supporter with a disability that I was now considering supporting Hillary. He immediately introduced me via email to a blind Clinton staffer. Within literally minutes, she emailed me at 9 p.m. saying she would like to speak to me about the campaign. I was so encouraged by how quickly they responded, after the months I was ignored by Bernie.
She didn’t treat me like a nuisance like the Bernie campaign did but rather an asset. She wanted to know my legal and advocacy opinion on disability policy. She explained in detail how Hillary planned to initiate change for us with sophisticated, legal political strategy. And, then she asked me to come on board and help the campaign best meet the needs of the disability community through, inter alia, writing for the campaign after they were able to officially vet my credentials. (Which has not yet occurred, and I, in no way, am writing this on behalf of the campaign) I soon realized that the Clinton campaign didn’t just care about the disability community; they hired us and treated us like the intelligent people we are.
My conversation with the Clinton campaign regained my hopefulness but also made me incensed that Bernie is maliciously lying to democrats about Clinton’s uncaring regard for the 99%, while destroying the party from within. Bernie is adamant that Hillary only cares about corporate interests and not the typical marginalized American. But, in fact, the opposite is true. If he cared about his supporters’ interests, his campaign would respond to these communities, listen to their issues and modify his platform accordingly.
His speeches never change for a reason. It isn’t because, as his supporters allege, he’s authentic and always on the right side of things. It’s because he doesn’t care to adapt, to research issues other than income inequality and the environment, follow up on his lofty ideas with solid policy initiatives or to make any compromises to achieve his goals. Rather, he just plays the blame game, pointing out everything that’s wrong with this country and proposing no specific plans to achieve his goals. He prides himself on being so honest and trustworthy while lying to the electorate about his concern for our well being and Hillary’s lack thereof. In reality, I see now that he doesn’t care about anyone’s well being but his own ability to rise to power.
What’s worse is that he is riling up his base to believe that the system is rigged, corrupt and rife with election fraud, based on theories grounded in conspiracy rather than fact. He’s excusing their violence and death threats on constituents’ frustration, rather than explicitly denouncing such vile behavior. The superdelegates are voting for Hillary, and some are starting to shift support from Bernie to Hillary, which I suspect will continue to occur, because they are experienced policy makers who recognize that Bernie has proposed no actual comprehensive policies to achieve his goals. They realize that, in the year he’s been running for President, he hasn’t created one single concrete plan. Superdelegates are in place to prevent dangerous politicians, like Trump, from achieving power when they don’t have the capabilities to effectively use that power and, thus, make things much worse in the end.
Coming to terms with these realizations was very difficult for me. I literally grieved and cried when I discovered that I had been so maliciously misled by someone I believed to possess such a high moral compass. I recognize that his supporters are frustrated and angry over income inequality, because I am too. But I plea with his supporters to wake up to HIS fraud and ask yourselves why he answers every question on every topic, from ISIL to our broken public school systems, with concepts of income inequality. It’s not because that issue is the root of all things wrong with our country but because he doesn’t care to research and be advised on any other issues, despite having the time and resources to do so.
Those of you who are Bernie or Bust, like I was, please, I beg of you, consider my personal experience. Google me. Find me on Facebook and Twitter. See for yourselves that I was Bernie or Bust, that I’m not some Wall Street attorney rolling in money. I am a disabled woman, struggling to make ends meet and to pay my medical bills. But I now recognize that Clinton is the only candidate willing to make the effort to effect the change we need. We cannot afford Trump or Bernie in the White House. They will only be given enough power to destroy what fragment of the American Dream we have left.
(For those who seem hell-bent on believing that my having lived in Israel somehow makes me biased: Bernie also lived there, I dislike the right-wing government there, and I continued my support for him after he criticized Israel in NY)
Ariella Barker, Esq.
Ariella has a BBA and JD from Emory University. For many years, she represented the City of NY and Mayor Michael Bloomberg in employment discrimination and labor law claims. She currently sits on the Council for Disability Rights for the Mayor’s Office of the City of Mooresville, NC and works as a disability advocate since being crowned Ms. Wheelchair NC 2014.