Skip to content

Media Talk 3: “Martha and Sara” and Disability Narratives

This year the Clinton campaign featured an unprecedented number of ads featuring people with disabilities that were the subject of two DVP Media Talk blog posts here and here.

As Election Day approaches, the Clinton campaign published two more ads, “Loetta speaks about mental health” and “Bryce.”

For this third DVP Media Talk blog post, here are some responses to the ad “Martha and Sara” by disabled/Deaf people (including a few non-disabled people to mix things up).

These critiques are not attacks on the people featured in the video but rather commentary about the framing and messaging of the ad itself. Nor are they attacks on the candidate Hillary Clinton.


Rachel Arfa

I’m used to political campaigns not being inclusive of disabilities as they campaign. Not this election and not our future President, Hillary Clinton. I’ve been impressed by how Hillary Clinton has several people with disabilities involved with her campaign. And now this story shared by Hillary Clinton could be the story my family tells. My parents fought for me to have equal access to all aspects of life – and it paid off. Our policies do matter. This mom could be my mom. Thank you, Hillary Clinton, for making sure these stories are shared.

Meriah Nichols

I have really mixed feelings about this. I mean, 100% kudos to Hillary Clinton and all that insurance awesome-sauce. For me, it gets a little dicey when they focus is so hard on ORAL stuff for deaf kids. Let me tell you this: Katherine’s cochlear implant isn’t working. I took out my hearing aids in solidarity – we’d both hear nothing. Katherine knows fluent ASL, I’m 43 years old and learning. Both of us are ninja lip-readers. But guess who can communicate without any problem? Not me. Because I struggle with ASL and lip reading is never perfect. So I am concerned about a message like this being shown to parents of deaf kids – saying that they can learn sign language later – that it’s most important to capture that moment with spoken language acquisition. That is simply not true – BOTH are important. Spoken, yes, and also the signed piece. It seems in this video that the daughter did learn ASL, but it is not clear, it’s not emphasized and the repeated message that parents are getting is that spoken is more important than ASL. Which is wrong.

Adam Pottle

I have a few problems with this video. First of all, it’s textbook inspiration porn. The up-swelling music, the overcoming-obstacles narrative, the tears…it’s all meant to affirm the normalcy. It seems like it’s confirming the status quo (which Clinton has been accused of doing) rather than moving in a new and refreshing direction (the way Obama did).

Secondly, I can’t shake the feeling that this story exploits this family. It seems Martha and Sara were handpicked to tell this story. Their story’s relationship to Hillary’s efforts feels tenuous; Hillary was one of dozens of people who worked on that legislation, and while she did play a part in it, we can’t forget that many other people – some of whom may have been Deaf or had disabilities – did too.

Thirdly, this video tells only part of the story. How many Deaf people has Hillary helped? How many people use ASL and can take pride in themselves as Deaf people as a result of Hillary’s actions? The daughter signs, but we don’t see her interact with any Deaf people. We see her doing “normal” things – graduating school, snowboarding, hanging out with friends – and that’s what this video is doing: it’s reaffirming normalcy. It’s emphasizing the status quo.

Athena Hitchin

I’m mixed on this as I understand that the story was trying to show how programs like the Children’s Defense Fund have help disabled children and it did do so and there are plenty of better examples that programs that showed this, a personal example of this being funding of development programs to help children which due to brain damage reach there milestones as babies (like myself as an infant after having neonatal meningitis), but like many of ways that the Clinton campaign is trying to show how she has helped they often are almost insulting or trying to put down disabled cultures like those of the deaf community. I am deaf, in my right ear and sorta felt like the mother’s statement of the deaf community was sorta ableist. I once turned down as a teen the offer to have hearing in that ear through a bone anchor device, being not interested in having it having never known anything other then hear from my left ear so how the statements were presented in this video, didn’t set well with me…

Vilissa K. Thompson

What bothered me was that the video displayed the mother’s perspective and allowed the daughter to be a “footnote” – a mere mention to a narrative that was about her life. I’d love to have heard her daughter discuss her journey as a deaf person – not her mother’s sharing about being a parent of a deaf person.

As someone who is hard of hearing and wears hearing aids, it always strikes me as strange to hear parents discuss how not being able to hear well or being deaf are such burdens to their child. When I was diagnosed at 13 with hearing loss due to Osteogenesis Imperfecta, my hearing loss was not painted as problematic, and I was able to decide if I wanted to utilize hearing aids or not. I chose hearing aids because I felt that it was the best option for me, but I feel confident that if I did decide that hearing aids was not a solution, my Grandmother would have respected my wish. My hearing loss has only been a “burden” when others have tried to make me feel insecure about it or failed to make appropriate accommodations; my HoH status is not something I am ashamed of. I look at being HoH as being a wheelchair user or a little woman – none of these identities are a problem for me, and are only is made a problem when others are ignorant or insensitive to what makes me uniquely me.

I feel that campaign ad videos like this one projects an inaccurate view about disability, and continues to strengthen the narrative that disabled people need to be made “normal.” We are fine the way we are – accept us for who we are and respect our disabilities.

Rayne Depukat

I find it highly offensive that at a time when Deaf folks using ASL are holding prominent positions in the White House, that this is the example of a Deaf person that is shown. At a time when language deprivation is the hottest topic among Deaf folks, this is what Hillary uses to self promote. This shows one type of deaf person, one who values spoken English over signed languages and who feels that her communication is superior to the communication of those using ASL. That is not representative of d/Deaf folks in general and is purely pathological. I’m actually deeply disturbed by this ad but not surprised. I had hoped Hillary might have been more inclusive. (Disclosure: I’m hearing w/ Deaf family)

Matthew Dietz

For me there are three questions – it right or wrong for parents to make these decisions for a child with a disability, whether it is a cochlear implant, ABA therapies, institutionalization, etc.. (2) did this parent give her child more of an option by early intervention, but also teaching about Deaf Culture., (3) is it ableist for the state to pay for some services and not others – should the state have a more pro disability policy by funding other options.

Clark Matthews

So look, the underlying PLOT of Martha and Sara is fine and worth shining a light on:

“Because of the Children’s Health Insurance Program that Hillary Clinton fought for, a family was able to access options for their daughter’s care that would have been unavailable otherwise.”

The filmmakers unfortunately conflated overcoming inequities in the healthcare system with the narrative of “overcoming” disability.

It’s complicated because, in a social vacuum, Martha’s story is just as worthwhile as Sara’s story. But we don’t live in a vacuum, we live in a mediascape that’s far more empathetic to Martha’s experience as the parent of disabled child than we are to Sara’s experience as a disabled young adult.

While part of me wants to say, “Well ok, so just aim to split it 50/50 between mother and daughter,” I noticed that with both Sara AND Ryan that the audience was never actually told what they’re up to now. Martha said Sara knows what she wants to do and is able to do it … but what is “it”?

It’s tough because these campaign videos really are all about Hillary. They exist to illustrate HER actions, to show the results of decisions SHE has made, which is completely understandable – an election is a referendum on a candidate’s actions and decisions.

The structure I’D like to see is, “Because Hillary Clinton did _____, I had the opportunity to choose to do _____.”

I’d love to see the narrative be that her actions have enabled others to act, which has enabled others to act, and so on that it’s not that she’s the lone agent of change and these other people have just benefitted from her benevolence but that her actions have set off a chain reaction of agency.

Not only is that a story I believe voters with disabilities would rather see but I think it’s a story voters without disabilities would be more responsive to, too. That all of theses government policies and programs don’t exist just to do FOR people, government can actually empower people so that they can do FOR THEMSELVES.

And of course…FUCK. THAT. MUSIC.

Amy Sequenzia

The mother seems to believe that speaking deaf people can do more (be more?) than the ones who don’t speak. I am not deaf but I am non speaking and this sounds a lot like when parents of Autistic children decide that ABA is helpful because it is the only way society will accept the child. It is compliance, accepting inequality And my usual complaint: where are the intellectually disabled, who need many supports, and are people of color?

Again, I feel like people who look a lot like me are not really in the minds of politicians.

Like it was in the convention, the disabled person needs to be “successful”, “independent” to have a place, to be valued or the disabled person does not get to speak, and becomes an object of pity.

Laura Mauldin

This video captures the reality that many families live with at least one family member with a disability, and these statistics are only showing the number to increasing. However, the video also uncritically buys into the narrative that disability is only a matter of a medical fix, and not also a social issue. Yes, children need health insurance. We all need health insurance. Yes, Hillary did a great thing by getting CHIP up and going. But it is dangerous to present healthcare as a silver bullet on disability issues. We also cannot argue for healthcare at the expense of thinking about the politics of the care that then gets implemented. The main problem is that it uses disability (and particularly deafness) in a disingenuous manner. It relies on the trope of the individual “overcoming” their disability and holds up the mythical technological/medical fix.The nuances of the particular experience of d/Deaf people being are lost and instead overcoming deafness is held up as a symbol of ‘inspiration’ achievable with the cochlear implant.


Emily Ladau



David Perry

Storify of Tweets by David Perry and other people about the ad:

Clinton Campaign and Disability Advertising – So Close to Good

The Clinton Campaign has been the most engaged with disability issues in U.S. presidential history. They are dedicated and have good intentions, and their policies are mostly excellent. But their ad campaigns often deploy disability as a prop, center only parents, or otherwise are problematic.

Leave a Reply