Deborah Muldrow, who could not enter the polling place due to a
physical disability, receives assistance as she votes for the South
Carolina Democratic primary in Sumter, S.C., Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016.
Unemployment. Incarceration rates. Access to education. Medicare coverage gaps. Reproductive rights.
According to a major population of U.S. voters, these are just a few of the issues that have been woefully ignored this election season, specifically in relation to their shared interest: disability rights.
“Candidates don’t realize that disability issues are embedded in all of the major issues they’re currently talking about,” said disability rights activist Alice Wong. “They don’t realize that employment, health care, gun control, entitlements, impact people with disabilities in unique ways.”
Wong and other advocates say the only pointed focus on disabilities during this election cycle has been negative, seen in candidates blaming mental illness for gun violence and mocking disabled election reporters.
This neglect is why Wong, along with two other disability activists, created #cripthevote — an online movement to engage and empower disabled voters who feel largely forgotten by their next president. So far, the nonpartisan group has gained momentum through organized Twitter discussions scheduled an hour before major candidate debates.
Wong and her fellow #cripthevote founders, Gregg Beratan and Andrew Pulrang, said this movement was the organic result of the growing online community of disabled voters — a population Wong calls the “largest minority group.” Currently, one in five American voters are living with a disability, and as the country’s elderly population expands, this number will only grow. But voter turnout for people with disabilities is still significantly less than those without.
“After watching the twelfth debate without a mention of disability, I had to do something,” said Beratan. “I was struck by how many other people in the community felt the same. This silence is leading to a lot of frustration.”
One of the movement’s top concerns is job equity. Less than 20 percent of the disabled population is currently employed — compared to nearly 68 percent of those without a disability. And the unemployment rate of those living with a disability is double that of those without.
“Out unemployment rates are so low — how do we move the needle?” asked Pulrang, the third #cripthevote founder.
While disability rights may not be discussed outright by candidates, Pulrang hopes that the candidate’s focus on police brutality may also elevate disability rights issues, since many of those wounded by police are disabled. Often, their disability leads to misunderstanding by police who aren’t educated in disability awareness — and this confusion makes them pull the trigger.
He’s also noticed some candidates, like John Kasich, talk about the importance of long-term care programs, but only in relation to the elderly.
“People of all ages in the disabled community need assistance with ordinary tasks, but nursing homes aren’t the solution,” Pulrang said.
Efforts to pass legislation supporting disability rights have dulled since the Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted more than 25 years ago, according to Wong. While a few substantial bills have become law in the recent years, she said this overall stagnation rests in the fact that disability rights have become considered a liberal cause.
“Disability rights and equality in general isn’t a partisan issue, especially when it comes to respecting basic human rights,” said Wong. “People need to be reminded that it was a Republican president who signed this major civil rights bill for people with disabilities.”
Another legislative setback may lie in the complexity of these issues.
“They’re complex, and the political establishment pants simplicity right now. Disability takes nuance, and not everyone has time for that,” said Beratan.
For those behind #cripthevote, victory can only be seen incrementally. For now, participants would consider it a success if a debate moderator simply asks candidates a question related to disability rights, or if a candidate chooses to directly address the community.
“We need candidates to produce substantial policy statements, not just superficially mention disabilities,” said Beratan.
Feeling ignored by the country’s leaders isn’t the only thing keeping disabled voters from the polls. Pulrang said that many voting locations are still inaccessible to disabled voters, if they have the right transportation to get there in the first place. Even mail-in ballots are a huge hurdle for voters with certain disabilities.
“For many, there’s this sense of futility when it comes to voting,” Purlang said. “The sense that that the effort put into voting isn’t worth the outcome.”