This election season presents particular challenges for voters with disabilities, but it also offers opportunities that haven’t existed before.
The coronavirus pandemic, problems with voting accessibility and efforts to electrify the disability vote may affect turnout for one of the state’s – and the nation’s – largest groups.
“We’ve called this before the sleeping tiger,” says Lisa Schur who studies the disability electorate at Rutgers University.
Schur says her team estimates there are 38 million potential voters with disabilities in the U.S., including more than 1 million in Michigan.
“It’s enormous potential political power,” Schur says. “And that being said, there’s been this stubborn turnout gap between people with and without disabilities.”
Local Activists Activate Disabled Voters
Local activists and organizations are working to fill that gap.
“In Detroit, there are 117,000, voting aged disabled adults. That is almost 20% of the population of our city. And so we know that if our community turns out and votes, we have a higher likelihood of getting from our elected officials what we need and what we want as disabled people.” — Dessa Cosma, Detroit Disability Power
Dessa Cosma is the executive director of Detroit Disability Power. The nonprofit has been leading get-out-the-vote and voter education campaigns.
“In Detroit, there are 117,000, voting aged disabled adults,” Cosma says. “That is almost 20% of the population of our city. And so we know that if our community turns out and votes, we have a higher likelihood of getting from our elected officials what we need and what we want as disabled people.”
Accessibility and Absentee Voting
Voting accessibility has always been a problem. Buildings without ramps or functioning elevators create barriers to people with mobility issues. Broken voting equipment or poorly trained staff may make voting harder. A polling location could be accessible to someone who needs one kind of accommodation and completely inaccessible to someone with other needs.
For many people with disabilities, the ability to cast an absentee ballot this year, especially with the threat of coronavirus, relieved some longstanding anxieties. Cosma says the threat of coronavirus and the precautions taken to manage it have a greater impact on people with disabilities.
“For many of us, we have to touch a lot of things,” says Cosma, who uses a wheelchair. “I have to use my hands and touch things in a way that a walking person doesn’t. The same is true for a blind person who uses their hands to navigate. And for Deaf or hard of hearing people who read lips, everyone wearing a mask makes that impossible. And, yet, the absentee ballot process is not fully accessible for people that are blind or low-vision.”
Tameka Citchen Spruce is an organizer with Warriors on Wheels of Metropolitan Detroit. Her organization was one of several working to provide transportation to voters with disabilities. That’s until they ran up against a hundred-year-old Michigan law that forbids voters from paying someone for a ride to the polls unless they can’t walk.
The ban was challenged in court, but a ruling this month shut down the program. Transportation providers would not be able to take blind people, people with epilepsy or even people who have difficulty walking to the polls.
Spruce says this is one of several laws that may not be aimed at voters with disabilities but has a profound effect on them.
Know Your Rights to Enact Change
Spruce has been working with the ACLU of Michigan providing “Know Your Rights” trainings. She says it is so important for people with disabilities to vote because there are so many issues that affect them.
“The disability community, and family members and those who love us, we are a huge group of people. We are a powerful group of people, and we can change an election.” — Tameka Citchen Spruce, Warriors on Wheels of Metropolitan Detroit
“The Affordable Care Act, education, just various issues, Social Security — all these issues affect the disability community,” Spruce says. “The disability community, and family members and those who love us, we are a huge group of people. We are a powerful group of people, and we can change an election.”
Organizers say that’s the really important part – change.
Teddy Dorsette manages communications for Detroit Disability Power. He notes the American with Disabilities Act is 30 years old this year. So, he said, government entities should know better by now.
“These are things you should know already,” Dorsette says. “This is something that’s important to us, the American people. So we’re talking about accessibility, we’re talking about accepting responsibility for actions and at this point — because the ADA has been around for so long — to me, I’m at the point where I say there’s no excuse, but there’s also no enforcement.”
People with disabilities need to make more noise, Dorsette says. He says politicians need to be held accountable for the promises they make to the community.
“We have state representatives, we have senators, we have legislators and congressmen who are individuals with disabilities themselves. But there’s no representation because they don’t talk about it,” says Corsette
Detroit Disability Power’s Dessa Cosma says the laws do need to be enforced and updated. But people shouldn’t have to sue every time there’s a problem. She says the state of ADA compliance and enforcement 30 years after the law passed shows there’s other work to do.
“We have a cultural problem,” Cosma says. “Laws are one thing, but until we actually change the culture, and it’s part of our culture to fully valued disabled people and to not think of us as broken or tragic, or pitiable or weird or gross, but to think of us as full human beings that have a lot to offer our society, all the laws in the world aren’t gonna matter.”
Doug Kruse works with Lisa Schur at the Program for Disabilities Research. He says disability issues are bipartisan issues.
“A couple of the Republican presidential candidates, Bob Dole and John McCain, both had disabilities,” Kruse says. “And this year, Joe Biden says he identifies as someone with a disability due to his childhood stutter.”
Kruse says Joe Biden has a disability policy platform. Several candidates in the Democratic presidential primary race did. The Trump administration does not.
Kruse is quick to explain voters with disabilities vote the same way the general population does, and that major advances like the Americans with Disabilities Act were bipartisan successes.