Disability Activists Speak Out on Their Needs for This Election Cycle

By: Isabel Taylor 

As the midterm elections draw near, tensions are high, and there has been much speculation on who will or will not vote. Much is at stake as we look forward. Yet, one community is trying against opposition to make their voices heard this election cycle: the disability community. The #CripTheVote hashtag is currently being used on Twitter and Instagram by disability activists, covering a range of topics, including the right to vote and the accessibility of polling stations. Things we might take for granted may be the deciding factors for whether or not individuals with disabilities are able to vote at all:

Will I be able to get in the building?

Will accommodations be made for my disability?

Will I be disrespected if I attempt to receive accommodation?

Do these candidates support legislation that lets me live a full life?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 calls for public spaces to be accessible to individuals with disabilities. However, in practice, this does not always occur. Polling places are often in churches, which are not subject to ADA standards, This means that an individual’s local polling place might be inaccessible, and that this is perfectly legal. Further, during the 2016 primary elections, two thirds of polling places were found to be ADA noncompliant. As self-advocate and disability activist Alisha Grishman says, “The ADA is a very complaint-driven law. If you want to change something, you have to sue.” This is not a sustainable especially for a community as strapped for resources as the disability community tends to be. In 2016, 40.8 percent of individuals with disabilities surveyed in the Washington, D.C. area were living below the poverty line, compared to 26.6 percent nationwide. For comparison, the general population poverty rate in 2016, as measured by the U.S. Census Bureau, was 12.7 percent. A sizeable percentage of individuals with disabilities simply  do not have resources to spare. Unless someone is willing to undertake the long, expensive process of a legal battle, many community spaces where people vote will remain inaccessible.

We have seen in recent months that healthcare and disability legislation is in a constant state of vulnerability. This uncertainty endangers individuals who rely on daily assistance. It is neither realistic nor respectful to act like each disability is a problem to be solved. Many individuals are permanently disabled, and deserve to be provided with the assistance they need to live full lives and integrate with the wider community.

One #CripTheVote hashtag co-founder, Andrew Pulrang, discussed the evolution of the hashtag in an interview. Pulrang and his co-founders, Alice Wong and Gregg Beratan, began to discuss the “loud silence” around disability during the 2015 presidential debates.  Their solution: start a twitter hashtag, which could be used both for searchability, awareness, live chats, and to engage the community. Today, the co-founders have a blog for the movement, and continue to routinely hold live chats. Disability activists in other countries have begun to engage with the hashtag, too, with a #CripTheVoteUK movement emerging in 2017. Frequent topics include polling place accessibility, disability legislation and representation in politics.

Due to the average financial state of disability community members, most rely on government aid to some degree in order to get the care they need. Government healthcare was a game changer for many, but relying heavily on the government for services means being prepared for when that aid might dissipate. This often means keeping a close watch on legislation.

The ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017, also known as H.R. 620, proposed changes that many activists believed would directly harm individuals with disabilities. Essentially, the bill changes the way the ADA acted before. Previously, identifying and reporting something that violated the ADA’s accessibility laws was enough to constitute a complaint. H.R. 620 would instead make people with disabilities responsible for a violation of the ADA. An issue would only be eligible for civil action if the complainer writes a notice to the owner explaining what the issue is, and then the owner fails to write a plan to fix it to the complainer or fails to make “substantial progress” to fix it. You can view the bill in full here, on the Congress website.

Senator Tammy Duckworth, who lost both her legs while serving in Iraq, came out in strong opposition to H.R. 620. In a Washington Post op-ed, Duckworth stressed that the bill would put the onus of following the law not onto business owners, but onto the people with disabilities who are simply trying to access public spaces. Duckworth points out that this bill would set a strange precedent: individuals with disabilities would be the only members of a protected class who would have to “educate” those who would seek to oppress them, rather than relying on enforcement of the law to protect them.

The nebulous “education” component is telling of the attitude towards individuals with disabilities in our country: you must prove your worth in order to integrate with the community. Likewise, one can easily imagine how the ambiguity of “substantial progress” would lead to disputes over what does or does not qualify as “progress,” and lead to ultimately a lack of action. H.R. 620 is currently on hold, as Duckworth and her colleagues penned a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, signaling their intention to filibuster. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to be the last threat to quality of life for Americans with disabilities, since the strides they have made towards equality are so often considered extraneous or expendable.

#CripTheVote hashtag participants are attempting to keep these efforts in the public eye, rather than letting them be pushed under the rug.

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According to the 2010 Census Report, people with disabilities make up 19 percent of the U.S. population. That means that nearly one in 5 individuals in the country has a disability. These people are in our lives and communities, whether or not we know it. Things those of us without disabilities take for granted– like living independently, having a job, or even just being able to get up and get ready for your day in the morning are things individuals with disabilities might struggle to accomplish. When their struggles don’t enter the public sphere, the public may be unaware of what they need from us as allies, as voters, and as community members.

#CripTheVote founders ran a survey which revealed that movement followers’ main priority, besides keeping their health care, was to elect individuals with disabilities into office. You can view the full survey results here. Representation is an issue for many minority groups, including women and racial minorities, who are still severely underrepresented in the United States government. It’s commonly accepted at this point that a diverse group of administrators can represent diverse interests and populations, thus serving all their constituents needs. Many people don’t consider disability to be an identity, but a weakness, or a private family matter.

There are very few politicians with disabilities; Duckworth herself was the first woman with a disability to win a U.S. election. Electing politicians such as Duckworth is an important step towards representation for Americans with disabilities, but it is not enough on its own. By keeping people with disabilities out of office, out of the polls, and out of our communities, we are sending the message that we don’t value them as citizens and community members. We can’t change these things overnight, but we can advocate for our fellow community members by listening to their needs, and voting for candidates who will respect them.

Americans with disabilities are fighting not only for visibility and representation, but for the right to exist. Even those of us who consider ourselves socially-minded are often guilty of leaving them out of the conversation, or failing to consider the unique struggles the community may face. Social media efforts like #CripTheVote give us the chance to learn what our fellow community members need from us as allies. This election cycle, we must vote for candidates who will preserve the accessibility of healthcare, and those who valued members of the disability community just as they are. We must also see people with disabilities and their struggles, and recognize that something as common as an old-fashioned building can present a real barrier to citizens trying to exercise their right to vote. Anything less is disrespectful to our neighbors, who face continual disrespect and endangerment from their own elected officials. The upcoming vote will be an indicator of where our nation is heading but it is also a chance to turn the tides.

Photo Source: Kisha Bari

 

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