‘We Aren’t Going Away Anytime Soon’: A Q&A With the Organizers Behind #CripTheVote

"I think for me the personal stories people have shared in the chats and live tweets have served to show that the policies and issues we look at in these elections are far from abstract; they have very real consequences for all of the people in our community," said #CripTheVote organizer Gregg Beratan.

Nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population is disabled; researchers estimate that close to one in six eligible voters is on the disability spectrum. This makes disability issues key to larger discussions of social issues, even though the diversity of the disability community means that the issues that matter vary considerably from voter to voter. Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

If you’ve spent any time on Twitter during this election—and who hasn’t—you may have noticed a hashtag growing steadily more prominent: #CripTheVote. #CripTheVote is a nonpartisan initiative with a mission to mobilize disabled voters, communicate with candidates across the ballot about disability issues, and expand understanding of those issues in the American electorate. During the last year, they’ve held 13 pre-election chats on a variety of topics, from voting rights to health care.

Spearheaded by organizers Alice Wong, Andrew Pulrang, and Gregg Beratan, #CripTheVote is one corner of the disability community’s answer to a high-stakes election cycle—and in case you’re wondering, the organizers have explained that they’re using the epithet “crip” in a reclamatory way, reflecting efforts among some disability rights activists to define their own experiences.

Nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population is disabled; researchers estimate that close to one in six eligible voters is on the disability spectrum. This makes disability issues key to larger discussions of social issues, even though the diversity of the disability community means that the issues that matter vary considerably from voter to voter. There’s also a high degree of intersectionality within the disability community, because people are rarely “just” disabled—transgender people, people of color, Native and Indigenous people, women, LGBQ people, and many other marginalized groups are encompassed within the disability community.

Some of the issues commonly important to the disability community include not just obvious targets like health care and government benefits, but also labor rights, guardianships and conservatorships, police violence, access to education, the school-to-prison pipeline, sexual autonomy, and much more. In addition, #CripTheVote is taking on issues connected with voting and the election itself: 40 percent of voters in 2012 reported physical accessibility problems, for example, and voters repeatedly struggle with broken or malfunctioning accessible voting machines, polling and caucus sites they cannot physically enter, voter suppression tactics like ID requirements, and a host of other issues that make it difficult or impossible to vote. Due in part to disenfranchisement through incompetency declarations, guardianships, and conservatorships, some people who are U.S. citizens of voting age are not allowed to vote simply because they’re disabled.

Exploding these issues into the public consciousness is critical, and Wong, Pulrang, and Beratan generously took some time out of their schedules to talk with me about the initiative and their hopes for the future.

Rewire: What brought about the start of #CripTheVote?

Alice Wong: We wanted to carve a space for thoughtful discussion about disability by us and for us. When we first started, it seemed like there wasn’t much disability visibility in the election. Andrew, Gregg, and I noticed that the coverage of the election during [the] fall of 2015 didn’t mention any disability issues or people with disabilities as a group of potential voters. The three of us follow politics and are connected to each other over social media and we shared various observations of the race during that time period. Gregg reached out to Andrew and me in early 2016 about starting an online campaign on the election and what matters to disabled people. Very quickly we decided our efforts would be nonpartisan, focused on disability issues and policies, and that the majority of our activities would take place on Twitter with the hashtag and Twitter chats.

Rewire: This year the disability community has been more visibly vocal during the election cycle and nondisabled people are starting to pay attention, but what kind of response have you seen from candidates to #CripTheVote and other disability-led election initiatives?

Wong: It’s been great seeing disabled people use Twitter to share their thoughts with elected officials and candidates with the hashtag. People might tweet their own stories, urge action on certain issues or bills, or prompt candidates to identify disability-specific content in their platforms. We’ve seen some local candidates respond to questions on Twitter from people with disabilities about specific issues such as subminimum wages. We’ve also had one candidate for Mountain View, California’s City Council, Thida Cornes, join us for our recent chat on local, state, and congressional races. I can’t say that we’ve had a huge response with candidates, but they are at least aware of the volume of tweets by disabled people based on their notifications.

It’s absolutely worth noting that this election has had the most disability representation ever in terms of political ads, media coverage, and campaign speakers and events. This is significant and historic.

I’d love to see more substantive discussions of disability issues during the election. For an event with both presidential candidates, the closest we got was the mentions of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) during the second and third presidential debate.

Rewire: Some disabled people are still disenfranchised when it comes to participating in elections—are you seeing any kind of shift in nondisabled thinking on the issue of guardianships and conservatorships?

Andrew Pulrang: I have not seen a shift in general awareness on this issue, except for the law recently passed in California to try to resolve [questions about voter eligibility for people with intellectual disabilities, who are frequently the subject of conservatorships], and maybe some of the publicity surrounding David Rector, the NPR employee who worked with his wife to get his right to vote restored. It may take longer than we would like for the idea to penetrate to judges and families who aren’t as connected to disability culture and activism.

Rewire: Voter suppression tactics (ID laws, shortened early voting periods, policed eligibility for an absentee ballots) obviously have a huge impact on the disability community—as these barriers to election participation hit the community hard because of its frequent higher poverty rate, lower education levels, and variable energy levels for handling both bureaucracy and voting itself, among other things. Do you also see nondisabled people paying attention to the disability aspect of voter suppression this year?

Pulrang: Again, I see much more awareness and attention to this in the disability activist community. That said, anecdotally, it does seem like more nondisabled people who are already tuned in to voter suppression are including accessibility for disabled voters in their thinking and efforts.

Rewire: Though I know it’s hard to tell with the general election still to come, are you seeing any shift on the issue of accessibility at U.S. polling places?  For you, what are the basic non-negotiable aspects of an accessible polling place?

Pulrang: We won’t really know until after the election. However, through #CripTheVote, my own understanding of this issue has broadened somewhat, to include concerns about making all of the process accessible to people with disabilities, including those with cognitive impairments, sensory impairments, autism, etc.

Essential components of accessibility include: physical wheelchair accessibility; sensory accessibility (for hearing and visual impairments); usability of voting mechanisms, not just accessibility of the polling sites; and making the entire process open and safe, including caucuses and political events.

Transportation is also an issue, although it is a little harder to tie that into required accessibility since getting to the polls is not generally considered one of the responsibilities of the electoral system itself. To me, that is something the political parties and campaigns should step up and address, since it is their job to get voters to the polls to vote for their candidates.

Rewire: As the primaries and caucuses rolled out, what kind of reports did you hear from disabled voters in terms of ease of voting and feelings of connection, or lack thereof, with the candidates?

Gregg Beratan: In terms of ease of voting, I think there is a sense that more states and localities are making efforts to improve accessibility, adding things like curbside voting, accessible voting machines and making mail-in ballots easier to get. It’s still nowhere near perfect and there are also efforts such as the many recent voter ID laws, which disproportionately affect disabled voters, and make voting more difficult.

There were very troubling reports about the inaccessibility of the caucuses, both in terms of format and location, that need to be addressed for the future. Considering at least 13 states used caucuses this year, that’s far too many people being excluded.

I think there were always candidates whom people in the community connected with. There was a just a deep frustration that even those candidates spent so much of or in some cases all of the race silent on issues so vital to our community.

Rewire: Through #CripTheVote chats, what are some major themes you see emerging across the United States?

Beratan: The wonderful thing about this year and the way the community has engaged with the campaign is that we have been able to have such in-depth conversations about issues. Our discussions on poverty have led people to share deeply personal stories about the ways ableist policies contribute to their financial insecurity. While live-tweeting the debates, questions to the candidates about the ACA opened discussions of how vital affordable health care has to be; one person shared that they probably wouldn’t be alive without the ACA. I think for me the personal stories people have shared in the chats and live tweets have served to show that the policies and issues we look at in these elections are far from abstract; they have very real consequences for all of the people in our community.

Andrew also did a survey of the community, and while there were many interesting things that came of it, perhaps the most intriguing was that people’s top policy initiative was for more disabled people to be involved in shaping the policies affecting the [disability] community.

Rewire: What’s next for #CripTheVote?

Beratan: While we are still discussing where to take the thing in the future, much of that future will be determined by the disability community. #CripTheVote has really only worked because so many in the community took ownership of the hashtag. While Andrew, Alice, and I may have moved things along, the community is what has steered things at every turn. I think from what we have heard so far is that people would like to see things continue. Even after the election, there will be need for political engagement and a space where disabled people can amplify each other’s voices.

I’ve been asked a few times during this election if the disability community is a sleeping giant, my answer each and every time has been “we’re not sleeping, and we aren’t going away anytime soon.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.