If you haven’t heard U.S. Representative Tammy Duckworth’s story, a quick YouTube search of her name will catch you up. You could easily start with one of her speeches from the last three Democratic National Conventions, where she eloquently and passionately describes how a rocket-propelled grenade blew up the Black Hawk helicopter she was piloting in 2004 during the Iraq war. That attack left her a double amputee with a severely wounded right arm, and subsequently the experience led her to a career of public service and eventually a seat in the House of Representatives.
But for a better understanding of her appeal and why she is currently leading her opponent in her bid for Illinois’ open Senate seat, you might be better served by watching one of the many videos of her 2013 confrontation with an IRS contractor who had abused his military disability rating to secure beneficial government contracts.
With various versions (e.g., “Awesome! Rep. Tammy Duckworth Absolutely OWNS Witness for Claiming Veterans Disability” or “Rep Tami Duckworth blasts Braulio Castillo who got IRS contracts reserved for veterans”) the approximately 8-minute-long video from the House Armed Services Committee shows Duckworth to be a forceful and articulate defender of veterans and people with disabilities. Castillo, the contractor, had a 30 percent disability rating for a foot injury he suffered as a teen at U.S. Military Preparatory School. He never served in the military following the injury, but did go on to play college football as a quarterback, and then many years later he used the rating to get preferred treatment securing government contracts.
Duckworth starts her questioning of Castillo with a smile and a cordial welcome and then proceeds to highlight how he cynically took advantage of the system, making it clear that “twisting your ankle in prep school is not defending or serving this nation.”
By the end of her time she eviscerated Castillo’s weak defense and articulately exposed problems inherent in the VA’s service ratings. “You broke the faith with this nation and you broke the faith of the men and women who lie in hospitals right now at Walter Reed and Bethesda, at Brooke Army Medical Center. You broke the faith with them,” she said. “And if this nation stops funding veterans’ health care and calls into question why veterans deserve their benefits, it is because people like you have poisoned the public’s opinion on these programs.”
Actions like that, combined with her broad demographic appeal as a female, minority veteran with a disability, make it easy to see why some think Duckworth has a unique opportunity as she continues her political career. “She is somewhat unprecedented in terms of she’s a good across-the-board progressive. She’s good on gay rights, she’s good on equality issues, she’s a veteran,” says Andy Imparato, executive director of the Association of University Centers on Disabilities and a leading voice on disability on Capitol Hill. “I just see her as someone who can connect with a lot of different constituencies in a way that I don’t know any other politician can.”
Disability is Part of Her Political Identity
This November 12 will be the 12th anniversary of the attack in Iraq that changed her life. Four days prior to that, on election day, she will find out if she is to become the first female double amputee ever elected to the U.S. Senate. That’s a pretty intense week, but after her rapid rise to political relevance, Duckworth is likely used to such things.
In 2004 and 2005 Duckworth spent 13 months recovering from her injuries and learning to live with the new physical obstacles facing her. “Every day, dozens of times a day, the medical staff asked me: ‘Tell me about what happened.’ They make you tell your story, over and over again (and then a few more times for good measure), to help you begin viewing your injuries as a chapter of your life instead of a defining characteristic,” she says. “That helps you move forward. My injuries will always be a part of me, but they aren’t all there is to me.”
Doctors amputated her left leg just below the knee, her right leg a few inches below her hip bone, and her right arm was reattached after nearly being torn off. Therapists spent months helping her learn to walk with prostheses and a cane, but she often uses a wheelchair. She still suffers from phantom pain.
She credits visits from former Senate leader Bob Dole and other veterans with helping inspire her to get involved in politics. Her new physical reality was never far from her mind. “One of the ways in which Duckworth stands out is that she had her disability when she started her political career, so her disability was always part of her political identity,” says Imparato. Duckworth has told reporters: “I’m not ashamed I’m in a wheelchair. I earned this wheelchair. I’ve always insisted it’s not something that we hide.”
In her first foray into politics, Duckworth lost a bid for Illinois’ 6th congressional district in the House of Representatives in 2006. She was soon after appointed director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs. In 2009 she left that position when President Barack Obama nominated her to be assistant secretary of public and intergovernmental affairs for the United States Department of Veterans Affairs. She resigned that position in June 2011 to campaign for Illinois’s 8th district. In November 2012 she became the first disabled female veteran to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. She won with 55 percent of the vote in an election that drew national attention for insensitive comments about her injuries by her Republican opponent, Joe Walsh.
Finding Her Way in Washington, D.C.
Duckworth was appointed to the Armed Services Committee, Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the Select Committee on Benghazi, and emerged as a strong voice for veterans. While she quickly found her political footing, the physical realities on Capitol Hill weren’t always easy. Lots of elevators and tight official schedules took some getting used to.
“When the Speaker announced that he was going to begin strictly enforcing the 15-minute time limit for votes, most of my colleagues probably didn’t bat an eyelash,” she says. “But for me, it forced a change in how I operate. I have to leave hearings and meetings earlier than other members to ensure I have extra time to make it to the House chamber.”
Educating her fellow legislators about accessibility is important to Duckworth. Even though she can walk with the aid of her prostheses and a cane, she started a policy of turning down invitations to wheelchair-inaccessible events. “I want the organizers and hosts to think about what they can do to improve accessibility,” she explains. “Many of these fixes are so simple — we just need to get people thinking about the disability community the way they think about any other group of people. It’s not just about improving access and transportation, it’s also about changing people’s perception.”
The citizens of Illinois sent Duckworth back to Washington for a second term in 2014. During her three-plus years in the House, Duckworth has helped secure the passage of key veterans and disability legislation, including the Achieving a Better Life Experience Act, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act and the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act. She proudly cites the latter, on which she was a co-sponsor, as evidence of the importance of bipartisanship. “Our bipartisan legislation will help reduce veteran suicide by increasing access to mental health services at the VA, addressing the shortage of mental health care professionals and improving accountability and care through third-party evaluations,” she says.
Duckworth has earned numerous accolades and awards for her advocacy, including the 2007 Hubert Humphrey Civil and Human Rights Award in 2007 and the 2015 Disability Rights Champion Award from United Spinal Association. James Weisman, United Spinal’s president and CEO, says Duckworth was an easy choice. “She has been outspoken, she has been perfect for people with disabilities, as she encourages them to get into politics, to run for office and to get jobs in government,” says Weisman. “She has just the right approach.”
When accepting the United Spinal award, Duckworth gave a rousing speech encouraging the hundreds of attendees with disabilities to get involved. “My message to the disability community is to continue making your voices heard. Never take the progress we’ve made for granted. It’s so important for everyone to get involved, to reach out to their members of Congress and let them know your priorities and how laws such as the ADA have improved your lives,” she says. “One thing I tell everyone thinking of running for office is you have to start somewhere. Whether that’s a state office or your local school board, having that experience of putting yourself out there and speaking up for what you believe in is invaluable.”
We Need a Disability Rights Champion
Duckworth is currently fighting to take her message across Capitol Hill to the Senate, running against Sen. Mark Kirk for the seat he won in 2012. In an interesting twist, and possibly a Senate first, the winner is guaranteed to be a wheelchair user. Kirk mainly uses a wheelchair following a serious stroke in 2012.
Many pundits have tagged the race as one to watch in the battle between Democrats and Republicans to control the Senate. Politico deemed Kirk “the most vulnerable Republican on the ballot in 2016,” in large part because of the higher turnout for a general election and Illinois’s status as a solid blue state. With the extra attention have come the seemingly inevitable missteps. In March the National Republican Committee tweeted, “Tammy Duckworth has a sad record of not standing up for our veterans.” The tweet was later deleted.
Should Duckworth prevail she will find herself in what could prove to be an enviable position. The retirement of outspoken disability advocate Tom Harkin in 2014, along with the 2009 death of Sen. Ted Kennedy, has left a void in the Senate leadership on disabilities. “We need a go-to person,” says Weisman. “With Tom Harkin’s resignation there is not a go-to person for people with disabilities. There isn’t a champion of disability rights in the Senate.”
Imparato, who has bipolar disorder and worked for Harkin prior to his retirement, suggests that Duckworth could fill that void. “I definitely see her as one of the people who is well positioned to pick up the mantle from Senator Harkin and Senator Kennedy and hopefully be a leader in the Senate and our community for a long time,” he says. He is optimistic that legislative attitudes about disability are improving and the opportunity to pass beneficial legislation is on the upswing. “There was a long period where things felt very partisan, and it didn’t feel like we were a priority, and we weren’t making big things like the ADA happen.”
“If you think about the period between 1990 and 2000, arguably the most significant bill that passed that was clearly a disability bill was the Ticket to Work Act, and it just wasn’t that important compared to the ADA. It was fine, but nobody was really excited about it,” says Imparato. “Between 2000 and 2010 the biggest thing we got done was the ADA Amendment Act, which was a big deal and was very bipartisan. Since 2008 when that passed, we’re kind of back on a better path.”
Asked what one change she would make policy-wise to improve the lives of the 57 million Americans living with disabilities, Duckworth responds, “Integration.”
“Despite all the progress we’ve made to date, the one outstanding goal that still remains to be fully achieved is fully integrating the disability community into everyday American life,” she says. Better job training, better jobs and better accessible transportation to get to those jobs are at the heart of her integrated vision. “Most of America may take it for granted, but those of us with disabilities know just how critical reliable transportation is for the ability of Americans living with disabilities to maintain an independent life. What good is a job or a degree without a way to get to class or a meeting?” She supports the Transitioning to Integrated and Meaningful Employment Act, “which would help people with disabilities reach their full potential in integrated, meaningful jobs,” and the Transit Accessibility Innovation Act of 2015 to help realize that vision.
Should She Win the Senate Seat
How much impact Duckworth will have on that goal depends, of course, on the result of the coming election. Should she win, Imparato says to watch which Senate committees she lands on.
“If you look at her House committee status, it seems like her veteran status was more important than any other status in terms of the committees she was put on. When you’re in the House, you don’t have a lot of committees and you don’t have a lot of staff. Now she’s coming over to the Senate, and I think it would be very significant if she goes on Armed Services and Veterans Affairs, which would kind of be the path of least resistance, or if she instead chooses the Health committee or Finance or Judiciary, where she could have a bigger impact on civil rights for people with disabilities.”
Weisman is excited about the possibilities and thinks she can have a wide-ranging impact should she win. “I think she can be great on veterans’ issues because she’s been through that. She understands traumatic onset of disability because she’s living it, she understands how different your life becomes because she’s living it. She has already spoken on behalf of the rights of people with disabilities. If she’s in the Senate she’ll have an even better platform for doing it.”
Before Duckworth can concern herself with decisions like committees, she has to focus on winning the race she is currently running. Looking back on her time in rehab at Walter Reed, she marvels at how far she has come and how much more she has been able to accomplish than she could have imagined those first few days lying in a hospital bed — including having a baby. Two years ago she and her husband, Bryan Bowlsbey, welcomed their first child, Abigail.
“We have been so lucky to be able to spend time with her and watch her grow,” she says. “So when I get frustrated by the difficulties I face or tired of explaining the realities of living with a disability, I look at all the good in my life and am able to say, “you know, things are pretty good — they could be a lot worse.”