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Javier Robles (CC BY SA 3.0)

A 2016 candidate’s guide to the disability vote

Disabled people aren't merely someone else’s dependents—they're also voters.


Posted on Apr 21, 2015   Updated on May 29, 2021, 12:46 am CDT

Considering the millions of dollars candidates pay for political campaign advice, it’s remarkable how inept they often are on disability issues. With some notable exceptions, like former Sens. Bob Dole and Tom Harkin, most politicians’ statements on disability are vague, outdated, and patronizing. Worse, few of them make it a priority to do better.

A Rutgers University study of the 2012 elections found that over 15.6 million disabled people voted in that year’s presidential race. If the 3 million who registered but didn’t vote had voted, that would have meant a disability vote of over 18 million. That is a significant number considering just 3.4 million votes separated President Obama and Mitt Romney in the 2012 election. These votes are also, of course, available to candidates for Congress, and for state and local office.

Maybe candidates have difficulty reaching a disabled demographic because it’s hard to identify a powerful, united “disability vote.” The Rutgers study also found mixed voter-participation numbers when compared to nondisabled voters. The registration rate for voting-age disabled people is 2.3 percent lower, and the voter turnout rate is 5.7 percent lower, than for eligible non-disabled people. About 3 million disabled people registered in 2012 but didn’t actually vote.

The 2016 general election campaign has already begun to ramp up. Now is the perfect time to offer some free advice to all candidates—national, state, and local—on how to address disabled people and talk about disability issues. Once the campaign gets going, we’ll all be pulling for our favorite Democrats, Republicans, or Independents, but for a limited time only, here are some basic tips for anyone willing to listen:

1) There’s more than one way to view disability

Educate yourself about the difference between medical and social approaches to disability. The medical model focuses on treatment, therapy, and rehabilitation to “correct” the “impairments” of disability. The social model emphasizes policies and practices that can make life better for disabled people regardless of whether their conditions improve. While disabled people overall subscribe to a wide range of ideas about disability, disability activists tend to live in the social model.

These approaches to disability call for very different policy discussions, and it makes a difference when you’re addressing a crowd. Talk to disability activists about ways to help people leave institutions, or enable disabled people to earn more money without losing benefits, and you will have their attention. Talk to them about more money for medical research or prenatal testing, and you’ll get crickets, even boos. On the other hand, if your audience is deeply involved in raising money for medical research, they may have less interest in disability rights laws or long term care policy.

2) Disabled people and their families are separate constituencies

We share many of the same concerns, but parents, spouses, and adult children of disabled people tend to have different perceptions of disability and disability policy than disabled people themselves.  It is risky to generalize, but broadly speaking, families place a higher priority on safety, security, and stability for their loved ones with disabilities. Disabled people themselves are more likely to prioritize equal access, opportunity, and control over the services and resources that support their independence.

Whether or not disabled people and their families disagree—and the divide isn’t always deep on every issue—it is important to remember that you can’t “cover” the disability vote just by by addressing a parents’ group. You must also speak directly to disabled people and their concerns as they view them. This is also an important distinction when dealing with parents and their disabled children and with adult children and their parents who have age-related disabilities and needs.

3) Disabled people have different perspectives on certain contentious issues

Disabled people often have perspectives on abortion and assisted suicide that don’t fit typical political and social divides. While there is no dominant disability viewpoint on these issues, there are some specific disability concerns that cause many disabled people to take positions on these issues that might surprise you. They are also worth considering by policymakers because they are so rarely heard in public discourse. While you may wish to join forces with disability advocates on these issues, keep in mind that their reasons for taking the positions they do may be entirely different from yours, and disability activists are often wary about being patronized or co-opted.

Autism is another issue where you should tread lightly and do your homework. You don’t have to be an expert to know that autism is a hot-button issue right now. When you mention autism, be sure to talk about both children and adults. Also, make an effort to connect directly with autistic people and their organizations, not just families and their organizations. There is sometimes intense disagreement about whether autism is a dread disease, a manageable disability, or simply an aspect of human diversity. A good way to learn about this debate is to look at Autism Speaks, which has a more traditional, disease-based approach, and the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, an organization run by autistic people that views autism as a varied range of neurological differences that can and should be understood and accommodated. You don’t have to take a position on what autism is all about, but you should be aware of the question and, above all, don’t assume that autistic people themselves aren’t voters.

4) Just saying you “support the disabled” is meaningless

Instead, suggest or endorse specific legislation or initiatives that address disability issues. Disabled people, maybe more than any other constituency, know when they are being patronized, and they don’t appreciate it. If you don’t know what to support, there is no shortage of practical, innovative policy ideas to draw from. Get to know some of the many disability rights and policy organizations on the state and national level. They have good ideas that go far beyond “give us more money.”

If you are running for local office, especially municipal, take a look at the state of accessibility in your area. Are most businesses accessible? Are sidewalks in good condition? Can low-income disabled, non-drivers get reliable public transportation that is fully accessible? Think about the role of accessibility in community development and public works.

If you are looking for an issue that intimately affects nearly every family in America, consider the growing issues surrounding long-term care for disabled people and older adults. How can we provide personal care to people who need help with everyday self-care—things like shopping, cooking, eating, bathing, dressing, going to the bathroom, moving from place to place, and managing necessities that can be hard or impossible to do without help if you have a disability?

Candidates who can address questions about funding long-term care, prioritizing community-based services that keep people out of institutions, and giving disabled people control over their own care services will grab the attention of disabled voters. This is potentially a huge sleeper issue, because the aging population will make long term and skilled nursing care more and more important over the next few years and decades.

5) Avoid patronizing actions, words, and phrases

Don’t say: suffer from; afflicted by; patients; handicapped; differently-abled; challenged (physically or mentally); wheelchair-bound; special needs (okay for talking to families, but not so much to disabled adults); and, of course, “retarded.” In fact, take note of the fact that many legislators on the state level have lobbied to take terms like “retarded” and “moron” out of their state codes to bring them up to more modern attitudes about disability.

Don’t push someone’s wheelchair unless invited to do so, and don’t assume that someone needs help. Speak to disabled people directly; don’t turn to someone else and ask, “How did she like the speech?” Never, ever, pet a disabled person on the head—not even if it’s a little kid! Look us directly in the eye and offer to shake hands. You can’t go too far wrong by treating disabled people the way you would any other potential supporter.

Above all, remember that disabled people aren’t merely someone else’s dependents. They are citizens. They are constituents. And they are voters.

Photo via Javier Robles/Wikimedia (CC BY SA 3.0)

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*First Published: Apr 21, 2015, 12:37 pm CDT