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Will Presidential Candidates Remember the Voting Power of People With Disabilities?


Candidates must make disability rights a priority in their platform, but they must also hire disabled campaign staff and ensure accessibility at campaign events and on social media.

Although the 2020 general election is more than 600 days away, campaign season is undoubtedly upon us.

Just this week, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) threw his hat in the ring, joining a growing group of Democratic candidates seeking to unseat President Donald Trump.

To date, more than 500 candidates have filed with the Federal Election Commission stating their intention to run for president, including Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro. As the races heat up, people with disabilities are wondering whether candidates will remember the power of the disability vote.

The disability community is certainly a sizable voting bloc. Indeed, 61 million adults in the United States—about one in four in this country—have a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When you consider voters that have a personal connection to disability, the number grows. In 2016, for example, 62.7 million eligible voters either were living with a disability or had a household member with one, according to Rutgers University researchers. In other words, more than a quarter of the total electorate had an association with the disability community.

Still, politicians have largely overlooked people with disabilities as a group worthy of targeting for votes. As such, many leaders in the disability community are eager to see whether 2020 candidates will fully recognize their importance.

“Disabled voters are anxiously watching the start of the 2020 elections hoping presidential candidates will remember them,” Colleen Flanagan, a disability rights activist and the co-founder and executive director of Disability Action for America, told Rewire.News via email.

Of course, demonstrating a commitment to disability rights will take far more than simply acknowledging people with disabilities. “It is important 2020 contenders mention disabled people when listing other marginalized communities, but merely mentioning disabled people is not enough to earn the disability vote in 2020,” Flanagan said.

To be sure, past candidates have made some efforts to engage the disability community. “Broadly speaking, I would say that Hillary Clinton’s campaign was effective in developing detailed disability policy, while President Obama was good at incorporating disabled people into his campaigns,” said Andrew Pulrang, who co-founded the #CriptheVote movement along with Alice Wong and Gregg Beratan. Indeed, the Obama campaign included a Disability Policy Committee while Clinton gave an entire policy speech on disability inclusion, featured people with disabilities at the Democratic National Convention, and incorporated disability rights into her policy platform.

This time around, Pulrang, Wong, and Beratan believe that for candidates to truly engage the disability community, they must hire disabled campaign staff and ensure accessibility at campaign events and on social media in addition to making disability rights a priority in their platform.

“At this early stage, developing specific policy stances may be a little less important than recruiting campaign staff and supporters who are disabled, so they can then help candidates develop their approach to disability in an authentic way,” Pulrang wrote in an email to Rewire.News.

“They should be preparing to have disability divisions of their campaigns, disabled staff in some key positions, (not just functionaries), and exploring the pros and cons of today’s major disability issues,” he continued.

Disability activists say some politicians are showing signs that they understand the importance of ensuring accessibility. “Two politicians explicitly addressed the disability community in last few months: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in her November 2018 tweet about captioning her Instagram videos using Clipomatic and former candidate for governor of Georgia Stacey Abram’s captioned video in support of the Disability Integration Act after her Democratic response to the 2019 State of Union,” Wong told Rewire.News.

Some 2020 candidates have followed suit. For example, candidates such as Booker, Harris, and Warren included captions in their videos announcing their candidacies. Warren also included an option to request accommodations when RSVPing to her campaign event.

 included captions in their videos announcing their candidacies. Warren also included an option to request accommodations when RSVPing to her campaign event.

It is too soon, however, to know the extent to which campaigns will be accessible to the disability community. “Only time will tell if campaign offices will open in ADA accessible locations, or if campaign advisors will be disabled people, but we know right now that campaigns with accessible locations and who have disabled people on their team have a better chance at earning the disability vote,” Flanagan noted.

As the races draw closer, candidates must also incorporate disability rights into their policy platform.

“It is absolutely critical 2020 contenders look at social and economic issues through the lens of the disability community,” says Flanagan.

Minimum wage is one such area where candidates must consider disability rights. “When discussing raising the wage, presidential candidates need to remember it is still legal for people with disabilities to earn less than minimum wage, and that thousands of disabled workers are still earning pennies per hour,”

Flanagan told Rewire.News. Pulrang agreed, adding that “candidates can support” new legislation in Congress that would eliminate sub-minimum wage.

Other policy areas that candidates should focus on include expanding home- and community-based services and supporting the Disability Integration Act so that people with disabilities can live in their communities; increasing affordable and accessible housing; strengthening programs like Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI); and ensuring that health insurance remains available to people with disabilities.

Disability transcends all identities, including race, ethnicity, immigration status, gender identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and religion. Indeed, many people with disabilities are members of multiple marginalized communities. As such, candidates must recognize how disability might amplify existing oppression and work to combat that oppression.

“We need a candidate with the courage to address ableism and who will fix the fundamentally broken system with solutions that come from the disability community,” Flanagan said.

“Politicians and public figures can give shout-outs to all kinds of communities, but they also have to work with us and have us on their agenda. How they choose to act with their votes and their advocacy remains to be seen as 2020 approaches,” Wong told Rewire.News. “I’m cautiously optimistic.”