By Michael Rock
The 2016 United States presidential election marked a turning point for the disability rights movement. During that campaign, Hillary Clinton became the first major candidate to offer a comprehensive plan to better address the needs of people with disabilities.
Though her bid for the nation’s highest office was unsuccessful, it empowered many self-advocates to assert that candidates for president in the 2020 elections will prioritize issues specific to people with disabilities. Some of the key issues they want candidates to take into account include hiring campaign staff with disabilities, greater accessibility on social media and at campaign events, pay discrimination, and greater access to key social services.
For citizens with intellectual disabilities in particular, numerous legal and cultural barriers to complete civic engagement exist, which can compromise the integrity of American democracy.
When it comes to voting in particular, people with disabilities often experience obstacles at polling sites. These can include an inability to access the site, defective machines that are accessible, poll workers who are inadequately trained to interact with people with disabilities, as well as an inability to travel to polling sites.
In 39 U.S. states, it is perfectly legal for a judge to strip an individual with a disability of their voting rights without warning based on a subjective sense of their mental competency. Proponents of this policy suggest that the votes of people with disabilities are more likely to be compromised due to the perception that such voters may have difficulty reading ballots or need aides to help them vote, among other reasons. However, there are already countless laws against voter fraud, and many point out that punishing voters with disabilities is an unfair and counterproductive approach to ensuring the integrity of elections.
Though concerns of election hacking have prompted an increased popularity in the use of cyber-secure paper ballots as the standard method of voting, many self-advocates have pointed out the filling out ballots manually can make it harder for people with disabilities to vote. Instead, they propose a system of ballot marking machines that print out a marked paper slip that voters check for accuracy before submitting.
In order to address the many challenges voters with disabilities face, RespectAbility, a non-profit dedicated to disability inclusion, created a resource list to help their target demographic vote. In addition to partnering with Democracy Works, a software development non-profit that helps enhance the voting process, to establish an SMS device that provides information in multiple languages about voter registration and polling places, RespectAbility promoted a carpool service, as well as Uber and Lyft to help voters travel to the polls.
RespectAbility’s work on the civic engagement of people with disabilities also includes a six-month series of talks, spanning from January to May, to better train women and girls with disabilities to better advocate for inclusion and acceptance in New York City public life.
Meanwhile, Chicago is home to the ADA 25 Advancing Leadership, which offers an annual Leadership Institute class. Seventeen professionals with disabilities with at least five years of professional managerial experience are selected to participate in a tailored curriculum along as mentoring and networking opportunities.
At the same time, the Lurie Institute for Disability Policy at Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management, just outside of Boston, recently established the Nathan and Toby Starr Fellowship. The semester-long opportunity grants undergrads an opportunity to study from the institute’s researchers for six to eight hours per week on a wide variety of fields of disability policy. Fellows also are given a $2,000 stipend. There are clearly many challenges people with disabilities continue to face in virtually all aspects of civic life. However, there are also numerous ways that policy makers, self-advocates, and everyone in between can make their voices heard so that people with disabilities can better integrate into the political scene.
Michael Rock is a New York City-based reporter and self-advocate with autism. A graduate of Brandeis University, his work has appeared in Kings County Politics, Chelsea Now, Our Town, Queens County Politics, and WhoWhatWhy.