Why Voting Matters for the Disability Community

A voter walks to fill in her ballot at a polling station in New York, November 2018.

Author’s note: The disability community is rapidly evolving to using identity-first language in place of person-first language. This is because it views disability as being a core component of identity, much like race and gender. Some members of the community, such as people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, prefer person-first language. In this column, the terms are used interchangeably.

As the 2020 election nears the finish line, Americans are increasingly bombarded with political ads and neighborhood yard signs—all trying to convince voters who will be the best candidate to represent them. In the past, however, disabled people have often not found themselves or their needs prioritized in political pandering. This exclusion seemed to wane throughout the 2020 primary elections, as several presidential hopefuls released disability platforms during their campaigns—an unprecedented and long-overdue inclusion of the disability community.

People with disabilities have lifetimes’ worth of experience navigating the United States’ systems of health care, social services, and employment—systems that historically have been slow to evolve to meet their needs. With 1 in 4 people in the United States having a disability, politicians should be looking to this population to help determine what a future America looks like, including bringing disabled people into conversations about how a post-COVID-19 society should function.

One only needs to look to the 2016 presidential election to see how the system has failed a significant segment of the population. In 2016, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that 60 percent of polling places were inaccessible to disabled voters in some way. The lack of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is not the only barrier to getting disabled people to the ballot box, however. Thousands of individuals with mental, emotional, intellectual, or developmental disabilities are kept from voting every year due to the effects of guardianship. Guardianship is a legal process by which many people with disabilities can lose their rights and freedoms—such as their right to vote—because they have been determined unfit to make certain decisions. While many in the general public are disenfranchised due to housing insecurity, a lack of transportation, or incarceration, there is a particularly high prevalence of disabled people and people of color in these disenfranchised groups. The coronavirus is just another barrier that can make voting unsafe—and at some points impossible—for people with disabilities.

Not much is known about how the coronavirus will affect the body long term. However, those who have contracted the illness, as well as the scientists studying the virus, claim it may have long-term ramifications, including heart and brain damage and triggering disorders such as chronic fatigue syndrome as well as connections to multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children. At the time of this publication, more than 8 million people in the United States have contracted the coronavirus. And while outcomes vary based on the study, researchers have repeatedly found that the effects of the coronavirus have lasted months in some patients—cases currently referred to as “long COVID.” In Italy, 87 percent of people who left a Rome hospital after having contracted COVID-19 still had at least one related symptom two months later. The potential increase of those experiencing chronic illness and disability due to the coronavirus is just one of many reasons why disabled voters’ perspectives are more necessary than ever.

The disability community has largely experienced housing, health, and service insecurity that many in the general public are now also experiencing due to today’s economic and public health crises. More than 12 million disabled people under the age of 65 and their dependents, who have limited income or are unable to work due to disability, rely on Social Security Disability Insurance for income and often wait years for final approvals. A GAO report found that, in the past decade, nearly 110,000 people died while waiting for their Social Security applications or appeals to be processed. Meanwhile, 138,000 people between 2014 and 2019 filed for bankruptcy during or immediately following their application process. Earlier this year, the Social Security Administration tried to make changes to the review rules that could make it even harder for people to access services.

As home evictions increase nationwide, people with disabilities and those with low incomes have been dealing with a shortage of roughly 7 million affordable housing units, while at least 24 percent of the unhoused population are people with disabilities.

While the disability community has experience in a number of areas, including housing, health care, and criminal justice efforts, often prioritized in elections, disabled people are rarely seen as a resource to positively influence policy in these areas. The diversity of the disability community, and the potential increase of people experiencing chronic illness due to COVID-19, make disabled people a vital yet often overlooked voting bloc.

What to expect when you go to vote

Voting dates, requirements, and ballot measures vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but there are general expectations you can have when going to vote in person or when voting absentee by mail.

In-person voting is still an option at polling places. When voting in person, you may experience accessibility issues regarding building access and voting. However, you have a right to vote accessibly due to laws such as the ADA and the Help America Vote Act. You may need to vote at a designated polling place and bring identifying information to support your residency such as a government-issued ID. To find information on what you need to bring with you, visit the U.S. Vote Foundation website. If you are concerned about your rights as a disabled voter, you can find detailed information about your rights at the American Association of People with Disabilities’ (AAPD) Voter Resource Center or at USA.gov.

Voting in person can be quick, but it can also require waiting in line for hours to cast your ballot. Make sure you are prepared for any needs you might have regarding standing, sitting, transportation, food and drink, etc., before going to your polling place. Depending on your location, you may be eligible to vote early in person and potentially limit the wait time and risks you could encounter on Election Day. To check your state’s early voting timelines, visit Vote.org.

Voting by mail is also an option. Americans have voted by mail via absentee ballot or as a common practice, such as in Utah and Oregon, long before 2020. Vote by mail is designed to make voting more convenient, and it has increased participation in states that have implemented the policy broadly. Still, some politicians have spread harmful conspiracies about mail-in voting in an attempt to confuse voters and undermine public faith in the democratic process. There is no evidence that voting by mail results in widespread fraud. States use numerous tools to ensure that only ballots cast by voting-eligible Americans are counted. Should you choose to mail in your ballot, you will want to request or pick up a paper ballot with enough time to get it postmarked by the last date required in your jurisdiction. To find your state’s timelines for requesting and mailing ballots, visit Vote America.

Where to find information about voting, and what to do if there are problems when you go to vote

There are several online and in-person resources about your ballot measures, polling locations, and to file complaints about issues involving voting access, voter suppression, and discrimination.

There are many resources, social movements, and initiatives regarding voting and disability access online. Get-out-the-vote campaigns such as Rock the Vote aim to increase voter participation and registration across all populations, while initiatives such as the AAPD’s REV UP campaign and #CripTheVote provide more disability-specific information on voting rights and protections as well as efforts to increase voter registration and turnout. There is also a wealth of inaccurate and intentionally misleading information online, particularly on social media. If you see information about voting times, locations, dates, and other pertinent details, always verify it on official election websites. The National Disability Rights Networks’ protection and advocacy centers offer robust information on voting rights for people with disabilities as well as legal professionals to provide assistance with voting issues—including access issues—that a voter might experience. Websites such as Ballotpedia, FactCheck.org, VOTE411, and Vote Smart provide information on candidates from the federal to the local level as well as candidate videos, biographies, and policy positions; some even offer sample ballots. Information on candidates and sample ballots may also be available at your local election office.

Conclusion

The lack of accessibility at polling places and in the ways people vote has not stopped disabled people from being politically active. People with disabilities have been fiercely political throughout U.S. history—from the Depression-era League of the Physically Handicapped, which fought for the right to work, to the Capitol Crawl, and from the 504 sit-ins to the die-ins to save the Affordable Care Act, disabled people have long used their voices and bodies to make political change.

As traditional advocacy issues for many people with disabilities are now being discussed more broadly, disabled people have the knowledge of how many of these areas both succeed and fail people in this country. Voting is one more way that people with disabilities can use their experiences to help influence the policy decisions made within their communities and their country—and their experiences are sorely needed.

Valerie Novack is a nonresident fellow with the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress.

This publication was made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.