The power of the disability vote in 2016

Disability is a funny beast. At the same time that some 20 percent of the population identifies with some degree of disability, the spectrum of what is, and isn’t, disability is hugely varied depending on impairment an individual experience. One person with depression considers herself disabled. Another does not. A wheelchair user is different from someone with chronic pain. Someone with a cognitive impairment is different from someone who is blind or visually impaired. Yet, disability tends to be lumped under a huge umbrella, as do accommodations, with some being generally well-known and assumed to be sufficient, with nary a discussion of lesser-known accommodations or conflicting access issues.

When it comes to organising the disability community, thus, collecting people across the spectrum can be very challenging. It’s not just that people have different kinds of impairments and experience different degrees of disability. People also have different relationships to disability. Some people are proud of their disabilities and celebrate them as part of their identities. Others view their disabilities in a more neutral fashion—it is what it is. Others are sometimes frustrated by their impairments, but still probably identify as disabled. Others struggle with their disabilities and wish they could access cures, perhaps especially in the instance of acquired disabilities. All of these experiences are real and all of them are valid: People should never be told how to relate to something so personal. It does mean, however, that organisers can’t speak sweepingly of a ‘disability experience,’ because there isn’t one. Just as a ‘female experience’ isn’t universal because women experience the world in so many different ways, there’s no uniform, generic way to encompass disability.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, especially when it comes to policy contexts. Disability is highly marginalised in the US (and elsewhere) and institutional disablism is a huge contributing factor to that, creating the policies that make it difficult to survive, difficult to live independently, difficult to fully engage with society. There is no one size fits all for the disability community, and there never will be, but there are some broad strokes that will address a number of social issues that affect the disability community. The ADA was one such example, specifically addressing institutional discrimination and banning a number of practices in addition to setting standards (periodically revised) for accommodations. Olmstead v LC was another important moment, affirming the right to community-based care and independent living.

One of the big fights in the 21st century is the battle over the earnings penalty, which forces disabled people into poverty. To access health care and disability services with government assistance, people need to be below a certain earnings threshold, with limited assets. Originally designed to prevent people with independent resources from taking advantage of programs to address critical needs in the disability community, it now constitutes a penalty. People who go to work to contribute to their communities and engage with the world lose their benefits, and the expense of disability care can put them right back into poverty with no net change. Similarly, benefits policies around marriage make it functionally impossible for many disabled people to marry, as they will lose their benefits—even if one or both partners vitally needs them.

Disabled people also continue to face discrimination, have to fight for any and all benefits they receive, experience rape and sexual assault at disturbingly high rates, are frequent targets for police violence, and more. All of these issues are social issues but also policy ones—for example, laws mandating police training in dealing with disabled subjects could greatly reduce the incidence of fatal interactions between disabled people and police. Better provisioning of mental health screening and care at a much earlier stage in the health care system could help people identify and manage mental illness much more effectively, rather than creating situations in which untreated severe mental illness derails someone’s entire life, sometimes fatally.

However, few candidates have clearly spoken out on their positions with respect to disability issues, just as historically candidates and members of congress rarely address disability. A few exceptions have proved to be incredible forces for good in places like Congress, often going against the stream to protect the rights of disabled people in the United States. This is the year, however, when disability voters are starting to rise up, get restless, and demand better treatment. Demanding that candidates articulate their platforms on disability and learn more about disability issues. Demanding that disability play a role in debates and conversations.

That needs to come with something else, too. Even as organisers pressure candidates, they also need to act as whips to organise the vote. Disabled people have to vote. And they need to vote in large numbers, and they need to vote in a block, highlighting the fact that candidates now and going forward must address disability issues if they want the community’s support—especially because in some areas, the disability block could mean the difference between winning and losing the election.

Just organising voter drives, get out the vote efforts, and voter education isn’t enough. Inaccessibility remains a huge problem at the US polls, and disabled people need to be working now with county clerks and other officials to forestall the problem. That means auditing sites used as polling places to ensure their accessible, confirming that accessible equipment and ballots will be in place, and training all poll workers on disability subjects. It also includes expanding education about and access to absentee ballots in communities that aren’t already all vote by mail.

Because there are a surprising number of disabled people who want to vote and can’t, all because of just one step.