By Stasia Winslow
Michela Alioto was on Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign trail in 1992, working as a scheduler for Clinton’s vice-presidential nominee Al Gore, when she began to take notice of the striking lack of representation people with disabilities received on the national campaign. Alioto uses a wheelchair, and so one of the things she first noticed was that, while many marginalized groups had a representative on the campaign who would advise Clinton on how to appropriately engage with certain issues that pertained to that group, such as someone who would represent Latino constituents, there was no one who represented people with disabilities. She said, “What I realized was that they had about 20 different constituency groups, but they did not have one that represented the disabled community. And so I wrote a memo to George Stephanopoulos who was the campaign manager… and I basically submitted a proposal to start a disability constituency office in the policy department, to which he said ‘Ok, great.’”
Once Alioto established this new office within the campaign, she began to tackle accessibility concerns that hadn’t been taken note of, let alone addressed. She said, “The campaign had no sign language interpreters, no information in Braille or large print, and they didn’t have anything on cassette tape. They only had one telecommunications device for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing communities machine (TDD). If a Deaf person called anyone in the campaign, that person would have to go down to the basement and use the one TDD machine.”
She got to work addressing these issues immediately, saying, “A lot of my job was getting sign language interpreters to every event, and making sure disabled people had places to go when they went to these events in all 50 states”.
In addition to the accessibility side, Alioto had to ensure that the language the campaign was using was not offensive to the disabled community. “I started off doing little stuff like getting the speech department to change phrases that Clinton would use”, she said. “For example, he used the phrase a lot about how FDR ‘broke from the shackles of his wheelchair’. People within the disabled community expressed that, ‘you're not shackled to your wheelchair, your wheelchair is your source of freedom and independence.’”
After the campaign was over, Alioto worked at the White House in roles unrelated to disability legislation. However, when concerns would arise related to people with disabilities, she would often be called in. She recounted a story about how one day, a group of Blind individuals were touring the White House, when the tour guides walked up to them and grabbed them by the elbows and started pushing them around – thinking they were being helpful. “At that point,” she recalled, “the White House realized that they really had a problem with understanding how to deal with the disabled community. They would pull me in randomly every now and then to help them in certain situations. I had to go around and give a couple of speeches on how to deal with the disabled community and how there were all these different groups and how you act one way to this group, and act another way to this other group. What was always interesting to me about that, was that they never actually hired someone to do the job, and they really needed someone to do the job.”
Alioto experienced some of this disregard towards accessibility for people with disabilities firsthand while she was working in the White House. Much of her work, including delivering policy briefings, took place in the West Wing. At the time, there were parts of the White House, specifically the West Wing, that were inaccessible to people in wheelchairs.
“At one point I went in to see the vice president's lawyer and said ‘There are parts of the West Wing that are inaccessible and since the ADA’s just been passed, you should probably bring all this stuff up to spec.’”, she said. The lawyer responded that he would send her request up to the vice president’s senior staff, but a few days later, he returned saying that the senior staff was not going to make any changes because they didn’t believe the White House was covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as you needed special privileges to enter it.
Alioto knew that this was untrue – all federal buildings were actually covered under the Rehabilitation Acts of 1973-74, which predated the ADA – so she brought some of her personal lawyers into the West Wing to inspect it. “They wrote up a very detailed letter about how we were going to sue them under the ADA,” she said, “and I gave that report to the vice president’s lawyer and said, ‘We’ll give you 10 days and we’re going to file this’”.
She also warned the vice president’s lawyer that she was going to alert the vice president himself. “What happens is that the vice president loses his stuff when he finds out – he gets furious. He tells everybody to make the changes, and within six months they make all the changes to the West Wing,” Alioto said.
The interesting end to this saga, she said, was that they realized that the previous president, George H.W. Bush, had the blueprints drafted to make the entire facility up to ADA standards before he had left the White House.
As she worked to dismantle structural roadblocks that discourage the disabled community from partaking in politics, Alioto had to simultaneously work against those structures. When asked how or if she has seen things improve for disabled individuals in politics in the last thirty years, she said, “Things have changed – you never see a political ad without closed captions… you always have sign language interpreters at events, there are always accessible places to go at events. But that’s sort of the frosting on the cake to make it look pretty – when you really get down into it, the policies themselves are still a real fight.”