Senator Kirsten Gillibrand recently pledged during a campaign rally to appoint a person with a disability to her Cabinet if she is elected President according to The Hill. Her response came after a question from a disability rights advocate who was asking her about her standards of inclusion for people with disabilities in the community.
As a man with a physical disability, while I do not think that her intentions are necessarily bad, this type of promise is highly problematic on a few levels.
First, consider Cabinet level positions in the United States government. These are very important jobs that need to be filled by the people who are best qualified to perform those jobs. I am obviously not saying that a person with a disability cannot perform these jobs. Rather, I am saying that having a disability does not make you inherently able to fulfill one of these positions just like being a man, woman, senior citizen, Oregonian, immigrant, or anything else does not make you a better fit for a position. It also does not make you inherently unable to fulfill one of these positions. People with disabilities need to be evaluated on their talents and abilities just like everyone else, and in such important national positions, you need to commit to putting the best person possible in that job, period. It would certainly be terrible if someone was not considered because they had a disability that did not impact their ability to do the job whatsoever. That would be discrimination and would be wrong. My using a wheelchair does not make me less able to do a wide variety of things, for example, so it is a problem when my intellectual abilities, for example, are discounted by simply appearing in a wheelchair, a purely physically-assistive device. However, as a matter of Presidential policy, these jobs really need to be given to the people who can perform the job most effectively. Disability should not factor into that decision-making process whatsoever.
Secondarily, making this kind of promise implies a quota. Gillibrand is almost definitely not going to be President, but let’s say that she wins. If she is true to her word, then she will appoint someone with a disability to some Cabinet position. What is the first questions anyone will ask? You know the answer. Why was this person chosen? Are the qualifications really there, or was she just using this person to fulfill a campaign promise?
That is not a fair position to put anyone in. She might hypothetically choose someone who is brilliant and a perfect fit for a Cabinet position. There are plenty of people with disabilities who would be amazing public servants and could serve the government at very high levels. However, that person would not have the opportunity to be judged on his or her own merits because of this cloud of quota-filling hovering over him or her.
As a man with a disability, I understand what it is like to have to prove your ability to people. I have had to do that all the way through my life to show people what I am capable of. There are a lot of misperceptions, and I certainly do not deny that having a person with a disability in the Cabinet would be a great thing to help people develop a different perception of what people with disabilities are capable of. That being said, by making this kind of promise ahead of time, setting up some kind of quota without qualification, Gillibrand has actually created an awkward and damaging situation for everyone involved.
The impact of her adding a person with a disability to her Cabinet would be substantially greater if she made it clear that the only reason she would choose anyone for her Cabinet is because that person is the best candidate for the job. If a person with a disability turned out to be the best candidate, then that actually achieves what Gillibrand is clumsily trying to achieve. The person with a disability in that position, chosen for his or her merits rather than to fulfill a quota, much more effectively proves that people with disabilities have a lot to offer our country.