How the US election result could light the touch paper of hope for disability justice

U.S. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris speaks as she and U.S. President-elect Joe Biden announce nominees and appointees to serve on their economic policy team at his transition headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware, U.S., December 1, 2020. REUTERS/Leah Millis - RC2IEK9VYZ3Q

Kamala Harris represents a different approach to power Image: REUTERS/Leah Millis - RC2IEK9VYZ3Q

Victoria Austin
CEO, Global Disability Innovation (GDI) Hub
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  • Expansive notions of power help to drive social progress.
  • The incoming US administration represents a stride forwards for inclusion.
  • Some 900m disabled people around the world lack basic aids like wheelchairs or walking sticks.

As the US election results finally hit our screen last month, it was Kamala Harris’s speech that stopped me in my tracks. Summing up the seismic opportunity we have before us now, she said: “we, the people have the power to build a better future.”

What is so important about this sentence is the ‘we’ and the optimism it offers toward the promise of change. But more significant is the notion of power she conjures up; something I have been studying for some time. ‘Power over’ – the type wielded by leaders such as Donald Trump - results in the increasing need to alienate and terrify. But people don’t stay scared for too long, we adapt and overcome by nature. Hence, things need to continue to get worse - the bullying, the division, the narrative - to maintain this type of power. This has been the tone for the past half-decade, setting the global bar horrifyingly low, and sinking to depths of name-calling that can never generate positive change.

The alternative view is to generate ‘power with’ (the people), ‘power within’ (ourselves and each other) and ‘power to’ (drive collective change) - see Brene’ Brown’s summary explanation on power. And it is the resurrection of this approach which is so confronting about Vice President elect Harris’s choice of words; and so potentially transformative too. These notions of power are expansive; the more we all work together the greater the trajectory toward progress.

But why does this matter for progressives fighting for social justice beyond the US, especially disability justice? As CEO of Global Disability Innovation Hub (GDI Hub) I think there are several immediate implications we should take to heart:

1) Inclusion has been reflected in the election of the (arguably) most powerful positions in the world, in a way never seen before. There is no doubt that as a Black-Asian American woman, Kamala Harris has smashed many glass ceilings; though she will no doubt at times feel the weight of the constituencies who feel she represents them.


Black Lives Matter has spun the (white, supremacist) Global North on its axis and while her election cannot erode the need for deep systemic change, it is a very clear starting point. Her inclusion, after she made significant criticism of Biden in the early fight for selection, goes to his character in only positive ways. This has the power to be a critical juncture in representation; governing ‘in service of’ the diversity of the people is true leadership. We should follow this lead in our organisations and in how we find ways to work alongside those we don’t always agree with us for progressive change.

2) They ‘get’ disability.

Kamala Harris published a Manifesto for Americans with Disabilities, and has a local track record on this work. I’m sure it’s not perfect. None of us are. But she promised to fight for disability inclusive health, education, employment, accessibility, and emergency preparedness and to reinstate senior disability positions (like that held by Judy Heuman under Obama). This is important because she understands what is needed and has some experience of delivering it, and because she knows it is important to have senior people with a lived experience of impairment leading the way. Joe Biden himself has a stammer, and has identified himself with the millions people with disabilities in the US. A president talking about disability has the power to drive change in enormous ways. It generates confidence and resilience, breaking down the visible and invisible barriers of stigma that are hardwired into our societies. It’s up to each of us to redouble our efforts to step into our vulnerability and lead from our hearts and our heads.

3) Both Biden and Harris back expansion of access to Assistive Technology.

Currently up to 900m people around the world don’t have basic assistive technology (AT) like wheelchairs or walking sticks, a figure due to double by 2050. We are addressing this through AT2030, a UK Aid funded £40m initiative through which, with our 50+ global partners including UCL, CHAI and UNICEF, we are trialling systems strengthening the advance of rights, research and innovation in more than 30 countries. Biden proposes to work with Congress to produce an Assistive Technology Act, which will expand underfunded AT projects and call for a new Assistive Technology innovation fund to create public-private partnerships. They know digital access is significant here too; especially in COVID times; as this Lancet paper from our Academic Director Cathy Holloway and our partners at WHO sets out. If the new administration expands USAID’s existing programmes around AT, they could be hugely significant. Biden/Harris’ commitment to ratifying the Convention on Rights of Persons with Disability (UNCRPD) – if implemented – could be a game changer. We can share what we and our partners have learned so far - testing ‘what works’ to improve access to life-changing Assistive Technology for all, including a new Impact Fund on AT which made its first investment in getting AT to emerging markets this week.

I am starting to see what enables change; where the critical junctures and opportunities are - from the good (London 2012 Paralympics, the most successful in history) to the bad (COVID-19). I can say this: strong and diverse leaders, who listen to the communities who they serve, are a necessary factor in success of any global mission I’ve ever seen implemented.

The US election might be just the spark we need to drive massive, global change in disability inclusion terms - against the backdrop of one of the most challenging years we have ever faced. These critical junctures or ‘sparks’ of the possible can light the touch paper - they won’t burn forever but should never be underestimated. The chance for others to see things differently is precious. Those of us fighting for disability justice should grab these opportunities with open arms, because hope shines brightest in the dark.

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