“You want me there, you want me to show up, you want me to speak, you want me to help you raise money? I'm not coming unless it is fully accessible.” —Senator Duckworth
U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth joined Disability Lead Executive Director Emily Blum for our Disability Power Series to discuss several topics, including finding her disability power, her lack of desire to run for President, why she prioritizes the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, and more!
Read on for some highlights from the absorbing conversation.
Senator Duckworth talked about recognizing her power to negotiate for accessibility. After being invited to several inaccessible events early in her political career, she realized it was up to her to change things. “You want me there, you want me to show up, you want me to speak, you want me to help you raise money? I'm not coming unless it is fully accessible. They're like—but Tammy, you can wear your artificial legs, and you can walk up these three steps—and I said that's not the point. The point is it needs to be accessible for all—not just for me, but for anybody who wants to attend.”
Negotiating for access is a simple yet effective way for us all to build our power.
Disability Lead Member Andrés Gallegos drops in to ask Senator Duckworth about enhancing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to live up to its full promise, which she acknowledges is an ongoing issue. “I really want us to go on the offense—I'm tired of being on the defense when it comes to the ADA.”
One way she plans to push back is by reintroducing legislation that aims to ensure that gyms and fitness facilities are fully accessible. “There's all sorts of other things that we can be working on, and I look forward to working with the community on those initiatives.”
After Andrés encourages Senator Duckworth to run for President, she replies that she has no desire to do so because she wants to be in policy for the long haul. “When you're President, you're President for—what four, maybe eight years, and that's it, right?—but if you stay a Senator, you can actually stay here and really help affect the path of this nation for a long time to come.”
Disability Lead Member Bri Beck asks about the fight to protect voting rights. Senator Duckworth says that she knows firsthand what it’s like to experience voting barriers. “The last time that I voted was just earlier last year […] for my municipal elections for the mayor of my town. And I went to my regular polling station that I've been going to for 15, 16 years, and they didn't have a wheelchair accessible voting machine that was working.”
It comes as no surprise, then, that she is a strong proponent of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which aims to restore and strengthen voting rights and is currently stalled in Congress. “I will vote for people to expand people's access to vote any day over choosing to protect the rights of 100 senators to maintain the filibuster.”
Senator Duckworth touches on the importance of intersectional communities joining forces to combat systemic discrimination. “We’re still learning to be each other's allies, and I think this is where organizational leaders coming together and working together to point out those areas of intersectionality, and educating our communities is really critical as well because so often you get very much focused on the issue that you are working on, and you don't realize there's somebody else working on the same issue and that they're in a parallel lane to you, and you should be doing it together!”
Senator Duckworth got involved in politics several months after being wounded in combat, which resulted in the loss of both her legs. It took her some time to come to terms with her acquired disability. “I wore my [prosthetic] legs all the time. I walked everywhere. I didn't really let people see my legs as much. And I was trying to present in that way. And I realized that that was just a lot of effort for no reason, and in fact, it was more powerful for people to see me as who I am.”
She encourages future political leaders to embrace their disabilities. “Don't hide your disability because that works against you in the long run. Even if it doesn't work against you in terms of messaging, you're just exhausted—it's exhausting, right?—and it denies who you truly are. So be true to yourself.”
U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth is an Iraq War Veteran, Purple Heart recipient, and former Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs who was among the first handful of Army women to fly combat missions during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Duckworth served in the Reserve Forces for 23 years before retiring at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in 2014. She was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2016 after representing Illinois’s Eighth Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives for two terms.