The National Council on Independent Living (NCIL) is a nonprofit organization that advances independent living and the rights of people with disabilities. We recently chatted with Sarah Blahovec, NCIL’s Disability Vote Organizer who shared key insights and tips for candidates looking to make their campaigns more accessible and inclusive.
NCIL represents a broad spectrum of individuals and organizations focused on various issues important to people with disabilities. How do politics, candidates, and elections fit into that framework? Why is it important?
NCIL is the longest-running cross-disability advocacy organization in the country. We are founded on the tenets of the Independent Living movement, which recognizes that people with disabilities are the best determinants of their own needs and interests, as opposed to non-disabled people working on behalf of us. There are over 58 million Americans with disabilities, nearly 20 percent of the population. Just like every other American, we have diverse interests and needs, and our disabilities intersect with these. We are impacted by policies on education, healthcare, employment, Social Security, transportation, housing, and criminal justice reform. Basically, almost every issue can be viewed through a disability "lens." So it's vital for people with disabilities to participate in all aspects of the political process, to vote for candidates that represent their interest, and to be candidates themselves so that they can lead on these issues.
What are some of the barriers faced by people with disabilities who want to engage in the political process, either as voters, candidates, or campaign staff and volunteers?
Inaccessibility is rampant throughout the election process, from voter registration, to voter education, to casting your ballot. A study of the 2012 election done by Rutgers University found that over 30 percent of people with disabilities experienced at least one difficulty in casting their ballot, as compared to only 8.5 percent of people without disabilities. At the polling place, these issues are still extensive. Some polling places are still inaccessible to the point that some voters with disabilities must vote from their cars (curbside voting). Poll workers may not have adequate training on how to interact with voters with disabilities and may try to gatekeep who is "disabled enough" to use accessible voting machines to vote, although disability cannot always be visually identified. Furthermore, many trainings are inadequate in teaching poll workers how to use accessible machines such as ballot-marking devices, and they may not be able to walk a voter through casting a ballot on that machine. The recent push towards greater use of hand-marked paper ballots due to hacking concerns, as well as the push for mail-in ballot systems, has its own challenges for people who cannot independently hand-mark a ballot due to disabilities such as low vision, blindness, or mobility disabilities.
Beyond the polling place, most online voter registration systems are not completely accessible to people with disabilities. Election websites vary in accessibility, and documents such as sample ballots may not be accessible to assistive technology.
If inaccessibility is this prevalent just for voting, imagine the access barriers for someone with a disability who wants to go a step further and become involved with a campaign or run a campaign themselves. Campaigns are complex but temporary operations that often don't think about accessibility for people with disabilities. Their staff may be small and if nobody on staff has knowledge about disability, they don't even know to include people with disabilities, let alone how to accommodate them. Therefore, they may not know how to make volunteer opportunities or voter outreach information inclusive and accessible. For candidates themselves, parties often don't know how to accommodate them, or don't have the money to do so. This can cause not only exclusion of candidates with disabilities but can lead to animosity between the party and the candidate.
What motivated the NCIL to create a toolkit to make political campaigns more accessible?
Campaigns help the community to learn about what a candidate stands for. If those campaigns don't have accessible events and information, then people with disabilities may not be able to learn about and potentially support a candidate. Candidates for office need to actively include people with disabilities not only in terms of access, but in terms of issues. NCIL's campaign guide includes basic information for candidates on how to reach out to the local disability community and include them. This is of benefit both to the disability community, who wants to be politically involved, and the candidate, who wants to win the support of more voters.
Volunteering on a political campaign is often the first way people experience civic engagement beyond voting. However, if there isn't somebody on staff or volunteering on the campaign who understands accessibility and accommodations, they may turn away prospective volunteers with disabilities because they can't accommodate them. The guide has creative solutions for all parts of the campaign process, including canvassing, office tasks, running events, phone banking, and other voter interaction, so that campaigns can include people with disabilities in these roles, and these volunteers can gain valuable campaign experience that may inform their own future campaign.
In the Incubator community, there are women who have made the decision to run, but are still at the earliest stages of planning their campaigns. What are a few key things they should keep in mind to make sure their campaigns are accessible to people with disabilities?
Access and inclusion are not a one-time-only, one-size-fits-all consideration, but also, they aren't difficult. They need to be implemented throughout the entire campaign process. This sounds more intimidating than it is. For example, when you set up your campaign website, you could look specifically for a website designer that understands web accessibility. If your website is already set up, there are free tools that can generate reports on access barriers, and many businesses and consultants can fix those issues easily. For events, make sure that a staff member or volunteer is the point person for accessibility, someone who can go through vetting the site's accessibility and making sure that everything is set up on the event day, as well as handle any requests for accommodations (the NCIL campaign guide has both a section on event accessibility and a checklist of accessibility considerations for an event).
Most importantly, talk to people in your community with disabilities. They know their needs and issues best. Making the campaign accessible to them is important, but also, you need to reach out to them as you would any other voters. Are they included focus groups, policy talks, and the candidate's platform? Connecting with the local disability community will help you understand their needs and interests as a voter.
NCIL is also developing a pilot program to train and encourage people with disabilities to run for public office. Why is it so critical to have the perspective of people with disabilities at the table?
20 percent of Americans have a disability, so we are a massive part of the population. Our needs and interests intersect with most policy issues. Who knows how to best represent us? We do! We need diverse candidates with disabilities at all levels of government, people who know how policies affect us and who will listen to and understand our concerns. Government needs to be diverse and representative of the community it serves, and we've recognized that we need to increase representation of women, diverse racial demographics, religious minorities, first-generation Americans, and the LGBTQIA+ community. We need to increase representation of people with disabilities as well.
Of course, people with disabilities aren't just the "disabled candidate" or "disabled politician." They aren't there just to represent our needs and interests, but the needs and interests of all their constituents. People with disabilities have qualities that make them great leaders. We have a history of advocating for ourselves and our communities in a world that is not built with disabled people in mind. We're resilient, adaptable, creative problem solvers.
Of course, not all disabilities are visible ones. How do you advise candidates who may have a hidden disability to talk about their disability on the campaign trail?
As someone with an invisible disability myself, I know that if I were to start a campaign, at some point it would come out that I have a disability, because I talk about it a lot as an advocate. This may not be the case for everyone, but the campaign process unfortunately means that your private life becomes public. Most of the candidates with disabilities I've talked to are honest and open about their disability, but they also don't make it the central focus of their campaign. Their disability is part of their identity just like their gender or their race, so it may come up in conversation, but it isn't the only thing that defines them. They aren't just "the disabled candidate" who knows about disability issues. They know much more than that.
A challenge that can come into play here is other people's perceptions of disability. There are a lot of misguided beliefs that people with disabilities are unable to run a campaign or serve in office because their disability limits them, or that they would be a bad leader because of their disability. This is so untrue! If you look at leaders like Tammy Duckworth, her disability doesn't make her a bad leader. In fact, her experience as a person with a disability informs her policy work and she has become a great advocate for the disability community while serving as an excellent representative for all her constituents.
So, my advice is to find a balance: don't try to hide your disability, but don't make it the focus of your campaign, either.
There are currently several high profile people with disabilities in office, including Senator Tammy Duckworth, Senator Jon Tester, Senator John McCain, Governor Greg Abbott, and Lieutenant Governor Cyrus Habib. Why is representation, particularly at the highest levels of political office, so important to the community?
Political representation is one of the most important ways to be seen and heard on issues that affect your community. The disability advocacy community has been around for decades, but the past year has been particularly eventful, as the disability community has been covered by mainstream media for protests on issues that affect their lives and liberty, issues like healthcare and the Americans with Disabilities Act. While these protests have been critical, it is also vital to have legislators who listen and act on the activism of the disability community.
One example of this happened earlier this year. This spring, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 620, the ADA Education and Reform Act. This bill would amend the nearly 30-year-old Americans with Disabilities Act to require anybody who experienced an access barrier, for example, an entrance to a building that is inaccessible to a wheelchair, to send a letter to the business owner, wait months for a response, and wait many more months to see if the business made "substantial progress" toward removing that barrier. However, that substantial progress did not have to involve actually removing the access barrier. This law would place the burden on people with disabilities to inform businesses that they're not in compliance with the law, and take their own legal action to try to rectify.
Despite the outcry of people with disabilities, including a protest in the gallery of the House of Representatives that ended in the arrest of activists with disabilities during a vote on the bill, it passed the House. However, after the passage of the bill in the House, one Senator wrote a letter in opposition to the bill and advocated for the support of 43 Senators. With these legislators, the Senator has enough support to filibuster the bill if it is introduced in the Senate, so for now, it is unlikely that the bill will be introduced in the Senate.
This issue was of vital importance to the disability community, as the ADA is the most important civil rights legislation for the disability community. While the bill was unable to be stopped in the House, one Senator advocated on behalf of the disability community to stop this bill from moving forward in the Senate. It is no surprise that that Senator who wrote the letter, Tammy Duckworth, has a disability.
Given the barriers we discussed above, how do you convince people with disabilities, who would be great leaders in office, to run for office themselves?
Nothing is going to change unless we get in there and do something about it. It's not easy to run for office, especially if there are barriers to running a campaign with your disability, but people with disabilities have run, and won, campaigns in the past. We're running and winning now, and we're going to continue to do so. We need people with disabilities to put their leadership skills to use and run for office. If you win, you will not only serve as a model for others who want to run as well, but you can help to tear down barriers to civic participation for people with disabilities. What if you lose? You're still doing important work. Some of the most important knowledge on running for office with a disability has come from people who have campaigned and lost. This collective knowledge comes together to help us all learn how to be great candidates and great leaders.
Anything else you would like to share with the women in the Incubator, including some with disabilities, who are thinking about running for office some day?
Regardless of whether you have a disability, connect with your local disability community when you run for office. People with disabilities are passionate and engaged in their communities. We have a lot to say. We can be a resource to your campaign as voters, volunteers, or staff, but only if you treat us like equals. Don't patronize us or brush us off, but instead, see us as experts on our lives and the policies that affect us, and we could become some of your greatest supporters or allies. Remember, we are nearly 20 percent of the population; we vote, we advocate, and we fight for our rights. We take "Father of the Americans with Disabilities Act" founder Justin Dart's words to heart: "vote as if your life depends on it, because it does."