Washington, D.C., May 25 – In late January, Oprah’s spiritual adviser and best-selling author of self-help books, Marianne Williamson, announced her candidacy for the Democratic nomination for President. Her campaign is much akin to a self-help book for the country, in which she aims to “heal the soul of America” through adding love and spirituality to American politics. Being the ultimate outsider in this election, she faces overwhelming odds. But, if her healing message appeals to the American people, she would make history as the first female and first Jewish President of the United States.
Despite Williamson’s famed charisma, she has yet to poll with any significant percentage since the campaign season began. Thus, it is critical for her to expand her campaign’s outreach to prove her message. Specifically, one vital group of politically active swing voters are people with disabilities, who comprise 25 percent of our country’s adult population. Additionally, more than half of Americans have a loved one with a disability. And a recent survey shows that fully three-quarters of likely voters either have a disability themselves or have a family member or a close friend with disabilities.
Williamson Has a History of Advocating for the Chronically and Terminally Ill
In the 1980s, when the HIV/AIDS crisis was at its peak, Williamson noticed that an entire community of Americans were dying and no one was truly helping them. Doctors and medical professionals were helpless to stop or even slow the virus, the government failed to appropriately intervene, and the general population was afraid to lend a helping hand, for fear of becoming infected. Further, as the majority of patients were gay men, many Americans, in the name of religion, were unsympathetic and even hostile to their plight. But Williamson, the ultimate spiritual guru, was determined to make a difference.
First, Williamson founded the Los Angeles and Manhattan Centers for Living. These centers were a refuge of non-medical support for people with HIV/AIDS. They provided patients with access to a variety of psychological and emotional resources, as well as a community of support. Williamson has described that time by saying, “there was so much love, because there was nothing to hold onto but love.”
In 1989, Williamson launched Project Angel Food to expand the Centers’ work. Originally, she founded the organization to support HIV/AIDS patients. Celebrities like Bette Midler and Elizabeth Taylor came together with Williamson, the gay community and those with HIV/AIDS to roll up their sleeves, prepare and serve meals for those dying of AIDS. As the AIDS crisis began to improve, Williamson expanded the organization’s outreach to cook and deliver more than 12,000 free meals each week to people affected by various life-threatening illnesses. Its services, which included medically tailored meals and nutritional counseling, helping under-served people throughout Los Angeles County who are too sick to shop or cook for themselves. And by 2017, Project Angel Food had served 11 million meals.
Ensuring Disability Inclusion Through Equal Access
For a presidential campaign to be fully inclusive of people with disabilities, it needs to meet the following requirements: (1) offer captioning with every video it shares or produces, (2) mention people with disabilities and their issues, (3) depict people with visible disabilities in its media, (4) reach out to the disability community, and (5) provide accessible campaign events and website.
While Williamson’s message is one of love and caring for each other, her presidential campaign is struggling to effectively share that message with the disability community. The videos she shares on social media and her website typically have no captioning or have YouTube automated closed captioning, which is unedited, leaving even glaring mistakes, like the repeated misspelling of her own name. And the captioning (which can fairly easily be fixed for free) is often so inaccurate that it’s difficult to impossible to follow. Thus, Williamson demonstrates an obvious attempt at disability inclusion by providing captioning on many of her videos. However, it is all for naught if the captioning is illogical and disorganized.
Moreover, Williamson spends a great deal of time discussing the struggles of various marginalized communities in America, except for our nation’s largest minority community – that is, Americans with disabilities. She often discusses healthcare, education, mass incarceration and income inequality. All of these issues greatly impact the disability community. Yet, she never mentions this or any other issues specific to disability.
And finally, Williamson depicts Americans of various demographics on her website and social media. In fact, her website has a section called “We The People,” which contains a collage of photographs depicting men, women, children and even a dog of various ages, backgrounds and sexual orientations. For her campaign to truly reflect “We the People,” 20 percent of those depicted in her media would have a disability. However, not one of the individuals in that section has a visual disability.
“Candidates for office ignore the disability community at their peril,” said former U.S. Representative and Dallas Mayor Steve Bartlett. Bartlett, who was a primary author of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, is the chairman of RespectAbility. “People with disabilities are politically active swing voters, and candidates should take note of the important issues they care about.”
Williamson has a record of advocating for people battling life-threatening illnesses. The disability community may appreciate these characteristics and her message of love and compassion. However, unless her campaign improves its attempts at disability inclusion, she could very well miss the opportunity to reach this group of swing voters and, thus, a chance to grab the ultimate prize: the presidency.