Candidates who want to build a sustainable path to elected office should be courting the disability voting bloc. Before explaining how to do that, I’ll tell you why.
There are 59 million Americans with disabilities and nearly 36 million of them are eligible to vote. Along with their families and care providers, this voting bloc makes up one quarter of all voters and touches one half of all voting households. Disability voter activism has been growing and it’s finally getting noticed.
Think-tanks like Pew Research studied the voting trends of disabled voters for the first time in 2016 while news agencies made disability connections to current events after then-candidate Donald Trump mocked a disabled reporter at one of his rallies.
The DNC national convention in Philadelphia celebrated the 26th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act and hosted disabled speakers each night, and Hillary Clinton courted disabled voters by running on specific disability education and employment policy.
These examples aren’t due to a new spark in interest, rather they are the early recognitions of a civic awakening that has been taking shape since the turn of the millennium. According to the Rutgers University School of Management and Labor, the voter registration gap between disabled and non-disabled voters has closed from 16 percent in 2000 to 2.3 percent in 2012.
This series of reports also demonstrates a voter turnout gap that shrank from 11-to-5.7 percent during the same period. And even with these gaps disabled voter turnout ranks high among minority voting blocs, 15.6 million voters with disabilities turned out in 2012. Their civic performance is only second to African Americans (17.8 million) and ahead of Hispanics (11.2 million).
The disability community’s Independent Living Movement has also been actively working to increase election engagement. During 2015 and 2016 advocates from California Foundation for Independent Living Centers, Disability Organizing Network, National Disability Rights Network, YO! (Youth Organized) Disabled and Proud, National Council for Independent Living, Association for Programs for Rural Independent Living and more worked together to conduct non-partisan GOTV trainings for more than 600 disability community organizers in Georgia, Virginia, D.C., Massachusetts and California.
The REV-UP national coalition to increase disability voter registration convened by the American Association for People with Disabilities has grown from a presence in two states to twenty-five in the last two years.
Results of a 2016 Pew Research study of 2014 turnout compared to findings in the 2013 Rutgers University report on the 2012 election showed that disabled voters may have been the only group to increase their turnout percentage in the 2014 midterm elections. If this trend continues, and voters with disabilities close the turnout gap with non-disabled voters, they will bring an additional 3 million people to the polls. Disabled voters may soon be a swing group that decides elections.
The 2016 activism has continued
Since last cycle, the disability community has experienced a significant boost in civic activism. Most disabled advocates can remember crowds of 5,000 people with disabilities as a high attendance marker for national events. Yet, in January the Women’s March on Washington took in nearly 15,000 accommodation requests for disability. These types of requests usually account for only one third or less of all the attendees with disabilities at public events according to event planners. Additionally, in March a group of activists with disabilities from A.D.A.P.T. who were advocating to protect healthcare made national news when they took over the Capitol rotunda and shut it down.
In recent years, people with disabilities have taken a greater place as stakeholders in our communities due to increased accessibility. It’s been over a quarter century since the passage of the ADA and shops, schools, offices, homes and all kinds of buildings are becoming more accessible. Technology and innovation are decreasing barriers to things like transportation and increasing access to websites and digital communication. Along with these structural accessibility advances cultural inclusion for people with disabilities is also starting to change, opening more opportunities for more community participation and the benefits of citizenship.
Reaching voters with disabilities
Individuals with disabilities are like any other American. They intersect with many identities that transcend race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, age, gender identity and expression, education level, faith, social status, political affiliation, economics and more. Disabled Americans care about everyday issues like any other voter.
People with different disabilities come together as a community because they identify with a shared need to break barriers and advocate for accommodations. This means that issues which open doors to independence are important to them, including: consistent, affordable and accessible healthcare, access to transportation, educational equality and increased employment opportunities. But accessibility is the most important factor in determining disability community civic engagement and earning the disability vote – if someone can’t read the campaign material or get into the office they often won’t vote for the candidate.
Accessibility should be a high priority for campaigns and it is not as hard as many think, it’s just about making the commitment. Start with websites and social media by making sure the campaign uses an accessible platform and a web designer who knows accessibility.
Continue by learning and maintaining accessible practices for digital communication such as using image descriptions for graphics and photos. Because of the great potential for universal accessibility on electronic and digital media platforms they have become the major communication and information gathering tool for people with disabilities.
Take the extra step to check out a few office spaces to make sure the campaign finds one with accessible parking spaces, entry with ramps and no steps and a wheelchair accessible restroom. Use this same practice when deciding on locations for large events. Advertise a request for accommodations on campaign volunteer recruitment flyers. When accepting invitations to participate in forums use the campaign’s community clout to insist that the space and program be accessible to voters with disabilities.
Finally, the best way to make a campaign accessible is to make sure people with disabilities are on the campaign team. Campaigns can hire an accessibility consultant, which is highly recommended for at least the start-up period. But for maintaining accessibility they can also usually find supporters who are also disabled leaders willing to volunteer or be a campaign committee member.
And of course hiring disabled campaign staff is the best way to ensure there are accessibility experts on the team. Many people with disabilities are also experienced in communications, social media, outreach, community organizing, fundraising, policy development, project management and more — it’s a great way to get an additional service for your campaign.
The door is opening for candidates and campaigns to embrace a large voting bloc that is increasing its civic engagement. Voters with disabilities have the potential to change the tide for many races around the nation and the campaigns that are accessible will lock in their votes.
Ted Jackson is a disability and LGBTQ policy advocate, electoral and initiative campaign professional and accessibility consultant. He can be reached at @TedJacksonCA.