Celebrating Disability Voting Rights Week: ‘The largest minority voting bloc’
Every year, issues that directly impact people with disabilities, such as Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare are placed on the operating table, ready to be sliced up and examined. “Vote as if your life depends on it because it does,” says Justin Dart, Co-Founder of the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD). This statement can resonate with anyone but rings especially true for people with disabilities.
The American Association of People with Disabilities REV UP Campaign has dedicated September 12-16 as the official Disability Voting Rights Week. Disability Voting Rights Week (DVRW) is determined to increase people with disabilities’ democratic voice by helping them register to vote, educate, and more.
While voters are aware that their individual vote is only a small drop in the grand scheme of American democracy, they take comfort in knowing that their voice can be heard — that they can support candidates who will advocate for them and their needs. The late U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) wrote, “The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society.”
Unfortunately, the voting process is far from equally accessible to all Americans. Many barriers inhibit voters with disabilities from taking complete advantage of their constitutional rights. A recent qualitative study conducted by Rachita Singh of REV UP and AAPD identified major barriers that prevented people with disabilities from voting. Singh determined that discrimination, voter suppression, lack of information, and voter apathy were the main contenders. The American Association of People with Disabilities recognizes these barriers as manifesting in a variety of different ways, such as physically inaccessible polling stations and a lack of ballot-marking machines.
Some states are purposely increasing the barriers to voting. In Wisconsin, for example, the state Supreme Court ruled against the use of dropboxes and required that individuals seeking to cast absentee ballots must deliver their ballot personally to the clerk’s office; they cannot ask another person to deliver it for them. For many people with disabilities, such restrictions will make voting far more difficult. The court did not address whether another person could drop a mail-in ballot in a mailbox.
Emily Ladau, who describes herself as a “passionate disability rights activist, writer, storyteller, and digital communications consultant,” shared her voting experience with the New York Times.
Ladau, who has Larsen syndrome and uses a wheelchair, shared that on Election Day the accessible entrance at her polling station in New York was locked. She told the Times. “Small things like this add up and send a message that people who are working the polls don’t really care about giving people with disabilities the same kind of access as nondisabled voters.”
Ladau’s individual experience and the individual experiences of countless others reflect the 2016 Government Accountability Office audit which found that 83 percent of voting sites audited had one or more accessibility barriers; 22 percent of sites had more than five accessibility barriers. These findings echo AAPD’s claim that states and polling stations are not doing enough to train polling workers and update voting machines to ensure that people with disabilities have access to voting facilities.
Many may suggest that people with disabilities should simply “vote from home” but there are many sides to this argument. On the one hand, a Rutgers University study found that voter turnout for the 2020 presidential election increased dramatically. This can partially be credited to the COVID-19 pandemic which expanded the use of mail-in ballots. This same study found that 52 percent of voters with disabilities voted by mail before election day.
On the other hand, while voting from home is accessible to many people with disabilities and eliminates the risk of contracting COVID-19 at the polling station, voting from home can be difficult for people with print disabilities. “People with low vision, blindness, and other physical disabilities can have a difficult time filling out, verifying, and mailing paper ballots,” according to the AAPD. These difficulties require them to either solicit help or go without voting if polling stations aren’t accessible to them. Clark Rachfal, Director of Advocacy and Government Affairs at the American Council of the Blind, says, “I can’t read a standard ballot at the polling location. Why is there an expectation that I can read a standard ballot not at the polling station?”
The barriers that prevent people with disabilities from voting are as diverse as the community itself. There is no “one size fits all” solution when it comes to voting accessibility. But as 1 in 4 American adults live with disabilities and as people with disabilities are considered the “largest minority voting bloc,” changes must be made to make sure that everyone can have equal say in this democracy.
The AAPD’s website proudly states, “Our mission is to foster civic engagement and protect the voting rights of Americans with disabilities. REV UP stands for ‘Register! Educate! Vote! Use your Power!’” The REV UP campaign has seen success over the years in increasing voter turnout and community outreach, but their work isn’t done until people with disabilities have accessible means for their voices to be heard. As Justin Dart said, their lives depend on it.