35 million strong

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on July 29, 2019 # Advocacy and Policy

In my last blog, I wrote about some surprising results for the 2016 Presidential election and how disabled voters voted. The overall vote was split right down the middle: 49% for Hillary Clinton, 46% for Donald Trump. In other words, voters with disabilities did not act like an “identity” voting bloc a la African Americans (88% Clinton) or white evangelicals (80% Trump). My guess is that African Americans with disabilities went with Clinton and white evangelicals with disabilities went with Trump. Race and/or religion had a much stronger pull than disability.

Now there is a new twist in this narrative that might mean a different disability vote in the 2020 election. According to a very recent story in Forbes magazine, the number of disabled voters in the 2018 mid-term election was up 8.5% from the number in the 2014 mid-term election. In 2018, 49.3% eligible disabled voters went to the polls, an aggregate number of 14.3 million. This is the highest disability voter turnout in such an election and probably means that, if motivated by the candidates, the 2020 outcome could show the greatest number of disability voters in history.

Who will this increased number vote for? At this point, it’s hard to say. First, it’s 16 months before the election and most voters, period, have yet to give it a serious thought. But equally important, no candidate, Republican or Democrat, has made any special effort to lure voters around disability issues. The twenty-three candidates, at last count, running for the Democratic nomination are quick to issue boiler-plate platitudes when it comes to disability, along the lines of “We need to rebuild the middle class…and make sure everybody – regardless of race, gender, religions, sexual orientation, or disability – gets a fair shot.” (Joe Biden). Disability makes a lot of laundry lists of people left out of the American dream, but that’s about it.

In an exhaustive new survey just published in the RespectAbility Report, also mentioned in my last blog, every candidate, Republican or Democrat, is evaluated as to his or her sensitivity and inclusion of disability issues or people. In my mind, it is slim pickings. Most include ASL interpreters in the speeches – Beto O’Rourke even had three such signers on stage for his opening announcement – but by 2019 standards, that’s pro forma in every press conference of every county clerk and small-town sheriff in America. Most employ captioning where needed. Pete Buttigieg hired a little person to be his travel manager – definitely a positive step – and Amy Klobuchar mentioned “Down syndrome,” “diabetes,” and “autism” in a CNN Town Hall appearance.

Disability, I think it’s safe to say, is not a prominent issue on anyone’s agenda to date. You will rarely see a person with a disability in any campaign literature. Even the daily “optics” that show up on the evening news rarely find a disability focus. There simply aren’t social or political gatherings of the disabled – like the annual Pride parades for the LGBT community or the annual Southern Baptist Convention for traditional Baptist – where politicians can milk the crowd and generate a million selfies for his or her PR machine. People with disabilities, both individually and as a group, have long been considered “invisible” and for good reason. Millions live their lives indoors as a matter of course and except for sporadic Capitol Hill sit-ins around the ACA or an Abilities Expo trade show, rarely do you see crowds of people with disabilities gathered in one place.

Wouldn’t it be great if the disability population had a big national event where we all gathered and stared at our vast numbers and maybe addressed the many issues we have in common that politicians could champion and then use to actively cater to this potential voting bloc? Maybe you couldn’t get the Trump disabled and the liberal disabled to agree about anything, but then again, who knows. A right-wing guy in a wheelchair and a left-wing guy in a wheelchair might hiss at each other but then play a pickup game of wheelchair basketball and be on the same team.

Okay, stupid idea. It’ll never happen and this community will remain a community in name only and never figure out how to act as one force. Maybe that’s the nature of the beast.

Or until the right issue, like the ADA in 1990, comes along and galvanizes a large cross-section of the 35 million voters with disabilities who could help determine the next US President.