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​Life On the Campaign Trail

Justin Chappell interviews Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders in Des Moines, Iowa.
Justin Chappell interviews Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders in Des Moines, Iowa.

Washington, Dec. 11 – I’m Justin Chappell, The RespectAbility Report’s newest reporter. I spent the month of November with fellow disability community leaders traveling throughout Iowa, using my wheelchair in nearly nine inches of snow to interview almost every candidate for president on both sides of the aisle.

Our travels have taken us from the state capital of Des Moines to Em’s Coffee Shop in Independence as we ask the presidential candidates how they would be a voice for people with disabilities and how they plan to engage people with disabilities in the political process.

A major issue for the disability community is the economy. More than 70 percent of people with disabilities are not employed, and we’re pressing the candidates to develop real plans to address this issue.

Justin Chappell navigates obstacles in his wheelchair
Justin Chappell navigates obstacles in his wheelchair

As a wheelchair user, I understand the importance of reaching out to the candidates on issues affecting people with a variety of disabilities. In this new world of nonprofit journalism, I’m advocating for better accessibility – from captions on videos and information necessary for screen readers on the candidates’ websites to physical accessibility at campaign events and fundraisers.

If a candidate wants to be president, it is important that anyone should be able to attend a campaign event – and for his or her information to be able to viewed and shared by all.

My first interview with a presidential candidate happened after being seated next to the exit door of Hillary Clinton‘s debate watch party. I positioned myself in front of Clinton’s path and asked to speak with her. She invited me to join her backstage for a quick interview.

Knowing that I was staying at the same hotel as presidential hopeful Martin O’Malley, the next morning I interviewed the former Maryland governor when we were eating breakfast. I’ve learned the importance of taking advantage of the moment and seeking out as many opportunities as possible to reach the candidates.

Of course, I interviewed candidates from both political parties, including Sen. Ted Cruz, who immediately agreed to an interview after stepping off the stage where he spoke for several hours at the Presidential Family Forum. At this event, I also spoke with Donald Trump, Gov. Mike Huckabee and Sen. Rick Santorum.

In the new year, I’ll be heading back to Iowa and New Hampshire leading up to the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, working with local disability leaders to press candidates to not only talk about our pressing issues but also to walk the walk by making websites and events more accessible.

I invite you to join me. Attend events with me or on your own. Let us know if you notice something great, like campaigns having ASL interpreters or live captions, or if you have an issue regarding accessibility. By holding fast to our community’s motto of “nothing about us, without us,” together we can ensure that changes occur for the better. You can do your part by becoming a citizen journalist. Attend an event and ask a presidential candidate a question relating to disability issues and send the video to us for our use. We know that attending an event and getting to the front of the line to ask a question is not easy, so we’ll pay $100 for every usable video.

As disability rights leader Justin Dart said, we must all “get into politics as if your life depends on it, because it does.”

Published inFirst-Person

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