Restoring The Promise of the Disability Voting Bloc

Posted by Michael Collins in Life After Paralysis on December 18, 2015 # Advocacy and Policy

At one time I believed that the disability community was recognized as a block of voters who could be counted upon to support candidates friendly to our issues. I also had the naive impression that, because of that, we would be mentioned along with other minority groups whenever candidates spoke about the need to include or respect minority demographics.

We hear candidates mentioning that need -- addressing the issues of such groups as people of color and women--in order to win races, but I have yet to hear any of the presidential candidates say anything similar about people with disabilities this year. In fact, the faces and needs of the disability community seem to be disappearing from the scene as campaigns continue toward our country's presidential election in 2016.

Is that a matter of concern? It should be, as we are in the throes of the next presidential election campaign season, and not much has changed. I am referring to the pathetically low turnout in the recent general election: a continuing trend that results in about 40% of those who are eligible to vote actually voting in midterm elections.

We live in a democracy, and the majority is supposed to rule. That holds true in Supreme Court decisions, passage of bills by Congress and decisions made by everything from county commissions and city councils to school boards. Despite all of that, the majority of people who can vote are content to leave decisions about who will attain political office, the size of tax levies, how those funds will be spent, and even important initiatives that might change state constitutions, to the minority of voters who bother to exercise their right to vote.

It is true that it was "just" a midterm election in November, but it is important to remember that candidates vying for national offices often start out running for office as local city council members or state representatives. Even at that comparatively low level of the political "food chain," those candidates rely on supporters within the community to make donations or volunteer to make phone calls or knock on doors throughout the city, county or state. Many of those roles are ideal for people with disabilities, yet not many of us step up and get involved when we have an opportunity to do so.

I base my assumption on the fact that there is a virtual absence of the faces of people with visible disabilities at rallies and campaign appearances, by candidates in all parties. My other indicator is how seldom candidates mention disability issues, and how often they stumble over disability terminology if it is mentioned at all. If those candidates had key advisers who were personally impacted by a disability, it is likely that our issues would not be overlooked.

When people look back at the success of disability advocates in gaining passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and other key disability rights legislation, it might appear that all went smoothly leading up to the president signing the bills into law. Unfortunately, that was not the case. The individuals who led those efforts had spent years getting to know key lawmakers and supporting their campaigns. Those lawmakers were familiar with the challenges that people with disabilities faced on a regular basis, thanks to the wise counsel of those advocates who remained as trusted advisers throughout the process and beyond. I am extremely grateful that so many advocates worked so hard to make sure that my rights were recognized and protected, starting long before I became a member of this "community."

All of the above is extremely important, as it is too easy to forget that state legislatures, Congress and the president are ultimately responsible for the many services and programs that we rely upon. Budgets developed and passed by Congress impact the programs important to people with disabilities, including Medicare and NIH funding for research. If lawmakers were made aware of the negative impact of the cuts in reimbursement rates for Medicare providers, the proposed slashing of reimbursement for what the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) considers "attachments" to power wheelchairs, and the impact that the Department of Labor's rules on overtime have on family homecare providers it is possible that Congress could be convinced to reverse some of those policies to our benefit.

Governors and state legislatures have control over state budgets, and also govern Medicaid services and such important issues as homecare provider rates, legalization of assisted suicide, closing institutions and also have the ability to switch institutional funding to an adequate network of services and programs that will support independent living in the community. If they are making decisions about those programs and services without the input of trusted disability advisors or supporters, it is likely that their decisions will not be to our advantage.

What can we do, as individuals?

Watch for the issues that concern you, and take action whenever it is needed. One good example is the action that was needed earlier in order to prevent planned cuts by CMS that would eliminate payment for complex rehabilitation technology accessories, which is many of the critical attachments we rely on if we are using power wheelchairs. The Reeve Foundation, United Spinal Association and the National Coalition for Assistive and Rehab Technology all urged us to call our congressional representatives and senators in regard to two bills that would delay the proposed cuts for another year. The community response was excellent, and the cuts were put on hold.

Get to know your elected representatives, and get them to know you. Become involved in their campaigns whenever possible. Better yet, offer to serve as a resource on disability and your other favorite issues--even between the periods when they are running for office.

Seek out advisory appointments. There are literally thousands of opportunities for concerned citizens to get involved by being appointed to boards, councils and commissions at all levels of government. Serving on a local park board might provide an opportunity to advocate for full accessibility to those parks.

Several state level organizations--State Independent Living Councils, State Rehabilitation Councils, etc.--are comprised of people who are appointed by governors or legislators to make important decisions about the programs that serve us. The president and members of Congress are required to appoint dozens of people to similar organizations, like the National Council on Disability; many of the appointees receive a stipend for time spent in serving, and virtually all are reimbursed for travel and lodging if it is required for attendance at meetings or for other purposes.

If you want to do the most good, consider running for office, at any level of government. You can't become more visible than that.

Most importantly, remember that we cannot afford to be indifferent, or uninvolved. As Justin Dart pointed out hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times, “Get into politics as if your life depended on it. It does.”

© 2015 Michael Collins | Like Mike on Facebook

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.