Three Candidates This Year Are Embracing the Disability Community—But Others Are Still Catching Up

For far too long, the disability community has been overlooked as a voting bloc deserving of attention by candidates. Cynthia Nixon, Sara Bitter, and state Sen. Barbara L'Italien are all demonstrating how critical it is to change that.

[Photo: Cynthia Nixon speaking at a rally.]
"The disability rights community is not a singular constituency with singular needs and it's time politicians stop excluding them from politics and policy decisions that directly impact them," Cynthia Nixon told Rewire.News in a statement. Drew Angerer / Getty

In 2016, 62.7 million eligible voters—more than 25 percent of the total electorate—had a disability or had a household member with one. Nevertheless, candidates have historically overlooked that sizable voting power.

Some candidates, however, are starting to take notice—with potentially beneficial policy effects for people with disabilities.

One such candidate is Cynthia Nixon, a Democratic New York gubernatorial candidate, who was endorsed earlier this month by Disability Action for America, the first and only national political action committee dedicated to disability rights.

“Cynthia prioritizes making New York more accessible for people with disabilities,” said Colleen Flanagan, co-founder and executive director of Disability Action for America, in a statement. “Cynthia Nixon has been meeting with disability rights leaders from the very beginning of her campaign. The meetings have included meaningful discussion surrounding the solutions that will bring New Yorkers closer to disability justice.”

Nixon, who recently spoke about the importance of improving home health care at an event centered on disability advocacy, says she believes that it is time for candidates to finally engage the disability community as an important voting bloc.

“The disability rights community is not a singular constituency with singular needs and it’s time politicians stop excluding them from politics and policy decisions that directly impact them,” Nixon told Rewire.News in a statement.

Nixon has made issues facing people with disabilities part of her campaign platform. “They want what all of us want—access to a good education, affordable housing, transportation, and most importantly, the ability to control their own fates,” the statement continued. For example, she has an entire section outlining the need to make public transportation more accessible to people with disabilities in her subway plan.

“Disability rights is a civil rights issue that must be an absolute priority in New York and across the country,” Nixon said. “As we campaign to make New York a state that works for the many, not the few, we will continue to go directly to these communities all across the state to hear directly from them and make sure their voices are included.”

Nixon is not the only candidate to embrace the disability community. Sara Bitter, a Democrat who is running for Ohio State Senate District 7, has focused much of her campaign on people with disabilities. Bitter, who is an attorney, a disability rights advocate, and a mother of two children with disabilities, told Rewire.News, “I am running for office to create a Disability, Mental Health and Addiction Caucus in the Ohio legislature, so that I can make sure that all voices and perspectives are represented when lawmakers get together in Columbus.”

By and large, Bitter said, “people with disabilities do not have lobbyists. This often means that their voices, and the voices of their families, are left out of the conversation entirely … I want to make sure that someone represents them when the legislature makes decisions,” she continued.

In addition to making disability rights a priority of her campaign platform, members of the disability community are an integral part of Bitter’s campaign team: “A significant number of people on my campaign team have a loved one who experiences a disability or mental health condition, have a disability or mental health condition or are working professionally in a disability or mental health related field. Some of the people working with me fit into several of these categories.”

Similarly, state Sen. Barbara L’Italien, a Democrat who is running for Massachusetts’ 3rd Congressional District seat, has a personal connection to the disability community. “When my oldest of four kids, Rudy, was diagnosed with autism, it became clear to me and my husband that we did not have educational, health care, or safety net systems set up for kids like him or their families. Health insurance wouldn’t cover the basic necessities that kids with autism need (like communication tools for non-verbal kids). I knew families who were second-mortgaging their homes to afford those basics that their kids needed,” L’Italien told Rewire.News via email.

For more than a decade, L’Italien has served as a Massachusetts state legislator, where she has been a strong advocate for people with disabilities, including strengthening special education and starting the Asperger’s Association of New England. “I plan to take this work to Congress, and fight for a better and more comprehensive system for all people with intellectual disabilities,” she continued.

L’Italien has also made incorporating the disability community in her campaign a priority. “I’ve involved this community in every one of my campaigns because it is my community. Through my leadership on this issue I have made many friends and met many families like mine just as empowered to make a difference for their kids. I’m proud to count dozens of people with disabilities or family members of people with disabilities among my volunteers. Even so, I make a point to hire people with disabilities and develop their skills. I make sure that the disability community is always included among the groups and constituencies we talk to on campaign website and promotional materials. I help organize this community to fight for what they need and vote for leaders who will help get it done.”

From holding campaign events for disability advocates, to ensuring that campaign staff include members of the disability community, to including disability rights as platform issues, Nixon, Bitter, and L’Italien have demonstrated the importance of candidates including the disability community in their campaigns. All three have also made pushing for policies that would benefit vulnerable people part of their campaigns, such as health-care expansion or public school funding.

Nevertheless, there is still work to be done across the board—as evidenced by the low voter turnout among people with disabilities.

During the 2016 election, the voter turnout for people with disabilities was six percentage points lower than that of nondisabled people. Indeed, people with disabilities contend with numerous barriers to engaging in the voting process.

Notably, people with disabilities experienced unprecedented attention during the 2016 election. An August 2016 Bloomberg poll revealed that voters found Trump’s mocking of a disabled reporter to be his most offensive action. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton received notice for her campaign’s significant focus on people with disabilities, including a rally centered on disability issues, a comprehensive disability rights platform, and the inclusion of people with disabilities as prominent speakers during the Democratic National Convention. Although disability advocates had concerns about Clinton’s lack of an intersectional approach to disability, many were thankful that a campaign was finally focusing on the disability voting bloc.

Still, according to researchers at Rutgers University, 18 percent of registered voters with disabilities did not vote—and for nearly 21 percent of that group, the reason was that they did not like the candidates or campaign issues during the 2016 election.

While there are likely many reasons for this dissatisfaction, one important one is likely the inaccessibility of campaign events and offices. To be accessible for people with disabilities, candidates must ensure that their events are fully accessible, such as providing wheelchair access, sign language interpreters, and guides for blind people. Likewise, campaign offices should be accessible so that voters can visit and volunteer.

According to the National Council on Independent Living (NCIL), “Campaigns must connect with their communities and learn about their interests so that they can understand their voters’ needs. If a campaign isn’t accessible, they aren’t able to connect with their community fully, and many prospective voters with disabilities can experience barriers to learning about or participating in a campaign.”

“Furthermore, campaigns are often powered by volunteers, and if they aren’t accessible, they’re both cutting off essential help and creating barriers to civic participation for people with disabilities who wish to be involved in the political process. It is up to campaigns to make sure that their information and events are accessible to voters with disabilities, and that they are reaching out to the disability community to actively include them,” the NCIL continued.

To assist political campaigns with engaging with the disability community and ensuring that they are fully accessible, NCIL has developed a free resource guide: “Including People with Disabilities in Your Political Campaign: A Guide for Campaign Staff.”

The lack of accessibility at polling places is also a likely source of low voter turnout among people with disabilities. During the 2016 election, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) examined accessibility at 178 polling places. Notably, 60 percent (107) of the polling places had one or more potential impediments, such as steep ramps, lack of signs indicating accessible paths, and inadequate parking. Of the 137 polling places where the GAO was able to completely survey voting stations inside the polling place, nearly two-thirds had a voting station with a purportedly accessible voting system that still had accessibility barriers. For example, some voting stations could not accommodate wheelchairs, thereby limiting some people from being able to cast a private and independent vote.

As candidates engage in get out the vote activities and push for voting rights, it is important that politicians include voting access for the disability community in their efforts.

As such, it would behoove candidates running for office to engage this community by including people with disabilities as members of campaign teams as well as ensuring all events are fully accessible. Likewise, candidates must include disability issues in their platforms while also remembering that all issues affect the disability community. Finally, as candidates push their get out the vote efforts, it’s important to ensure that people with disabilities have access to polling places.

For far too long, the disability community has been overlooked as a voting bloc deserving of attention by candidates. Ignoring the needs of people with disabilities has significant consequences. Indeed, disability rights are currently under attack, likely in part because of the lack of disability awareness by politicians. Moreover, because disability transcends all identities—including gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, and political affiliation—all issues affect people with disabilities and having politicians who understand a range of needs and experiences benefits everyone.

Undoubtedly, people with disabilities and their loved ones remain a massive and largely untapped voting bloc. But as Nixon, Bitter, and L’Italien demonstrate, it is not only easy to include the disability community in campaigns—it is critical to do so.