Political ad features candidate’s son with cerebral palsy: Exploitative or empowering?

pexels-photo-29737A political ad in New Hampshire features a candidate with a son who has cerebral palsy. Is the ad exploitative? Or empowering? For an answer, I went to an expert: the mom of a daughter who has a similar disability.

by Deana Herrman

New Hampshire governor Maggie Hassan is running for senator. A campaign ad came out last month featuring her 25-year-old son Ben, who has cerebral palsy. Can we first agree that it was nice to watch a political ad where no one was belittled?

I watched the ad a few times. I had mixed feelings because I watched it each time with what felt like a different identity — a mom of a ten-year-old daughter who has a similar disability to Ben’s, an advocate, a healthcare worker and a skeptic who is sick of the tone and actions of politicians.

Governor Hassan’s ad tells the story of why she got involved in public service. I bet a lot of parents of kids with special needs can relate to that. I appreciate her story. It’s important for people to hear stories of parents of children with disabilities. It encourages sharing, gives parents a support community and may encourage others to get involved as well. Good for her for being involved and having this drive her so far into public service.

Honestly, children cannot always advocate right away for themselves, and as parents, one of our first jobs is making sure our children are supported. Some have called this ad exploitative saying that it takes advantage of her son. I think she is allowed to own every part of being Ben’s mom, including the part about being motivated to get involved as a result of raising him. After all, it helps define part of who she is.

Is this ad “inspiration porn?” Maybe. I don’t know the extent of Ben’s abilities. If it were Ben on camera telling us how great his mom is or telling his own story, would we judge the ad the same way? I can see how someone who has a disability might look at this ad and think that Hassan is using this story to show how everyone “helped” Ben without shedding light on any of the issues facing the disability community.

That said, Ben inspired her to get involved. Is there a way to tell her story without using her son? Probably not — especially if getting him what he needed was her main reason for entering community service and politics in the first place.

In the ad, Governor Hassan says, “That’s one of the reasons I got involved in public service, because it made it so clear to me how much you can accomplish when you work together.” It actually sounds to me like the collaborative efforts around raising her son are what inspired her to want to work with others in the same manner, even in the political arena.

Yes, she doesn’t have Ben’s disability, but isn’t it natural that his disability affects his parents and siblings? I can see how our daughter inspires/influences our son’s actions and vice versa. It’s just what happens living in a family.

In order to advance any progress for people with disabilities, doesn’t the greater community need to be aware and to be involved? To me, there are broader topics to discuss in an election year — topics like: When does the disability community make an impact in this (any) election? When does disability get discussed by politicians without tit being linked to healthcare? I wonder if Ben can vote — a big issue for people with disabilities. I wonder, if Ben saw that ad, would he vote for his mom? Or would he just want to go join a community service organization?

Perhaps rather than critiquing or lauding this ad, opponents and supporters can collaborate as Maggie Hassan did and use it as a platform to bring awareness to some of the disability issues that are getting ignored: voting rights, funding of IDEA, enforcement of ADA, equal pay, unemployment. Pick a topic — there is more work to be done!


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