Disability and Democracy

Brief History of Disability in American Democracy

As I am completing my poll worker training I am pondering what it is like for a person with a disability to exercise their rights in a democracy (or federal constitutional democratic republic for you social studies sticklers). People with disabilities have long been the most under-represented group in our democracy. And while we no longer break out the leaches and candles to cast away “the humors that afflict the disabled or those For years they were institutionalized or “humanely” killed in their infancy even through the 1970s. And when it comes to representation, years of illegal poll tests, being locked away for “men And now as we are in a pandemic what

Roosevelt in 1941 with his dog Fala and Ruthie Bie, the granddaughter of a gardener who worked for the Roosevelt family
Photos of President Franklin D. Roosevelt sitting in a wheelchair are also rare and weren’t shown to the public while he was in office.

I have been part of an effort to have my students be informed about the long history of disability rights advocacy in America and be inspired to become the next generation of fighters. Yes, we are still the nation where FDR felt he had to hide his disability despite his long service to the nation and JFK hid his ongoing illness too. More recently we have president’s and candidates even hide illness (while possible risking contagion) simply to avoid the stigma of “weakness” associated with illness or disability. I encourage you to dive deeper into the history of the fight for disability rights.

And while it’s hard for be to believe how we may elect a president with a visible disability (not counting for regular accusations of mental illness which only exacerbate that stigma) we do have many other public servants with disabilities like Senator Tammy Duckworth and Congressman Dan Crenshaw who became disabled following active military combat. Those types of physical disabilities seem to have a different level of reverence than for people born with a condition. But there are also those serving like Texas governor Greg Abbott or NYC Council Member Jumaane Williams who were elected to serve regardless of their challenges (with walking or Tourettes respectively). But even with the estimate that 1 in 10 politicians has a disability, that is still a gap in representation.

There have been major efforts to help that have included the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which includes provisions for voting and the DOJ Help America Vote Act of 2002. In addition there are many powerful disability advocates continuing the fight like Anita Cameron, Imani Barbarin, and Ady Barkin. And while both major presidential candidates have had missteps in the area of engaging people with disabilities from Trump’s mockery and abelist policies to Joe’s possibly infantilizing a voter with disabilities. I’d like to focus more on what a voter with disabilities can do rather than all the surrounding political implications. So let’s dive into what it is like for the actual voter in 2020.

I am different, not less.

Temple Grandin

Voting With a Disability in a Pandemic

Voting button with a wheelchair icon

According to Rutgers University, over 38 million eligible voters have disabilities. That’s over 16% of voters and more than 25% of Americans who voted in 2016. There have been many ways people with disabilities are prevented from voting in a modern context from inaccessible locations, requirements to use stairs, or not even having the accessible voting machines turned on. I have been told stories of where alternatives to paper ballots and pens haven’t been provided for those who can’t hold them or those who can’t read them either due to a visual impairment or a cognitive disability. And now when many of those very same people are the most vulnerable to an illness that has led to the deaths of more than 210,000 Americans and over 1 million people worldwide. The easy answer to that sounds like mail-in balloting, but some people would also need assistance with that. And there are stories of people with disabilities in 2020 who are being challenged or have already missed out on voting because of flaws in the system.

Democracy only works if everyone is able to participate and vote,

Lisa Schur, professor at Rutgers University

Gladly we are now a nation where, at least theoretically whether you can read or write in English or another language, you can still vote as a citizen. That theory doesn’t always hold up in a country known fro gerrymandering, felon disenfranchisement, poll taxes (still happening in Florida), reduced polling places, opaque information, and more.

Not all places are equal though. West Virginia is one of the worst states for disabled voters, having a large percentage of people with disabilities and one of the worst voter participation rates for people with disabilities. Kentucky is also pretty bad. Colorado does really well as do some other states for meeting the standards for accessible polling places. Colorado has now adopted universal vote-by-mail and automatic voter registration for all voters also has made it easier for people with disabilities to cast their ballots. And while an argument rages on about the validity of mail-in methods (something that has existed since the Civil War), it is clear it remains essential for many voters with disabilities to still be able to exercise their rights.

Other states have followed suit like New Hampshire who adopted a new tablet-based voting system for the blind. New York also has a number as well but these differ by state. Look into yours and fight for it to improve. For example, in NY there has to be accessible entrances and signs to indicate them. There are guidelines for voters who are deaf, visually impaired, have limited mobility, speech disabilities, cognitive disabilities, or voters with service animals. And I’m happy to see details teaching people to allow for maximum independence with text that should be more obvious but is important to state. It includes details like “Do not assume a voter in a wheelchair wants to be pushed” or “If you do not understand something, do not pretend that you did”. Also the fact that an ADA booth is always available and doesn’t require someone to ask for it is huge.

In New York though there are still new obstacles for voters with disabilities in the pandemic. Blind voters often show up in person to access the accessible materials, but what do they do about a paper ballot they can’t read. After litigation it was agreed that voters with disabilities could request an accessible email ballot. Although there is inconsistency about how well those ballots in different counties are read by screen readers. There were all issues with how those people had to print the ballots to mail. And for people without the manual dexterity to put it in a ballot or with weakened immune systems who can’t go get mail, they need to rely on the kindness of others and forego the privacy of their vote. That shouldn’t be an obligation for democracy to work.

I am a strong believer that the more people who are allowed to engage in, and not be disenfranchised by our system, is crucial. I have personally helped two close friends with disabilities get registered to vote for the first time. I’ve long been working on a third, and I hold out hope that he will see the value in engaging soon. I’m not sure how they’ll vote nationally or in even more crucial local matters, but the more people from a broad range of experiences who express their ideas through their right to vote the better we will be as a nation.

Resources for Voters

voters with disabilities protesting

There have long been people trying to limit who had the power to vote based on race, gender, age, ability, or basic party affiliation. And that is because, regardless of the many shortcomings of our democratic institutions, they know that if those groups come together in power to push back, those votes can change a lot. So whether you are a person with a disability, a person advocating for those with disabilities, or someone who just wants to exercise their right to vote regardless of circumstances, here are some resources to help.

Information is always your best tool to fight injustice.

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