How Disabled Voters Could Swing The 2016 US Election
In an election where gender and race are both popular topics of discussion, there’s a silent but formidable group of voters that no one’s talking about: disabled voters.
At last census, roughly 20% of the US population identified with some degree of disability, spanning a huge range of impairments across race, gender, age and class. Disabled people represent a huge electoral bloc, one Jim Dickson, the co-chair of the National Council on Independent Living’s voting rights subcomittee, contends is as formidable as other minority bloc voters.
But disabled voters don’t get much media attention – and substantial barriers lie between them and the polls. Some organizers want to change that, and are looking at ways to mobilize the disability vote.
Lisa Schur and Doug Cruse, researchers at Rutgers, have studied disability and voting extensively to explore the statistics of the disability vote and find out more about who is participating – and who isn’t.
“General predictors of voting include income, education and social isolation,” Cruse explains, noting that these are all common issues in the disability community. Schur adds that only 30% of polling places in the US are completely accessible, and voters struggle with issues like transportation, photo ID laws and polling place hours, all problems also encountered by other minority groups.
These, she says, could be a profound argument for organizing alongside groups like the black and Latino community, who are also being disenfranchised by voter suppression measures.
Across the disability spectrum, she has also witnessed bipartisan behaviors, which should encourage engagement from Democrats and Republicans alike, because they are both missing votes as a result of excluding disabled people from the electoral process.
Organizing as a bloc could be tough, she admits, because not everyone with an impairment identifies as disabled, and people experience such varying degrees of disability. Blind voters are different from wheelchair users or deaf voters, she says, with their own interests.
Dixon disagrees, though, arguing that disabled voters all have something in common: the experience of disability. His comments are in line with those of other disability rights activists, who acknowledge that disability is quite varied, but the priorities of disabled people remain extremely consistent.
Dixon, along with disability rights organizers Alice Wong and Andrew Pulrang, identified jobs as a key priority for disabled people, something that should be perking up the ears of the Sanders campaign. Economic inequality is a huge problem for disabled voters, who struggle with what’s known as the “benefits penalty” – disabled people who go to work risk losing benefits, so even in cases where people want to work, they are forced to stay home or lose healthcare, personal assistants and other supports that keep them living in their communities.
Community-based living is another concern, as disabled people still struggle to access care that allows them to stay out of institutions, and government funding, Dixon says, tends to funnel people towards nursing homes. Paradoxically, this is much more expensive, with institutionalization costing $40,000 to $80,000 annually, in contrast with a few thousand for a personal aide to help out around the house.
Disabled people are also very worried about police violence, says Pulrang. “The police killings that have garnered so much attention in the last few years include people with disabilities, who were killed in part because of poor understanding of how to communicate with people who have various kinds of disabilities.” That could be another point of collaborative organizing, as the black community is similarly concerned with the issue – notably, many victims of police violence are both disabled and black, in an intersection of injustice.
RespectAbility is one group that’s hoping to promote voting in the disability community with outreach on these issues. The group is surveying and educating candidates on disability issues and conveying responses to disabled voters and other interested parties. Their hope, as with other disability activists, is to increase voter participation and push candidates to do better on disability issues – ultimately, that may include promoting bloc voting, with initiatives like #CriptheVote and RevUp! doing voter outreach as well. Wong is cautious about turning the disability community into a monolith, though, preferring to focus on uniting people behind common issues like social services.
It’s not enough to mobilize as a group, Pulrang, Schur, Cruse and Dickson all argue: We need more data on disabled voters to learn more about barriers to voting access, how people are voting, and which sectors of the disability community should be targeted to increase political engagement. Pulrang and Schur point to poor Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) enforcement at polling places as an obstacle, for example, while Dickson notes that key provisions of the Help America Vote Act are still not being enforced, making it hard for disabled people to hit the polls.
This election could be a tipping point for disabled voters, akin to the mass youth mobilization in 2008 with the Obama campaign. A smart candidate could tap that, and promote the development of a large bloc with differing experiences, but common interests, like jobs or better mental health policy.
The candidate who proactively courts disabled voters could take key primaries – or perhaps even the general.