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ADA voters are a key constituency

As a result of suffering a very temporary disability, my respect for those truly and permanently disabled grew enormously.

I’d like to be able to say I tore my ACL making a difficult traverse while climbing the final pitch of Yosemite’s El Capitan, or in running my 10th marathon, but alas, I sustained the injury while dancing at a wedding.

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However embarrassing the proximate cause, the loss of that crucial ligament confined me to a wheelchair for several weeks. I thanked heaven each day of my captivity in that chair for the strength and foresight of people like Tony Coelho, Steny Hoyer, Tom Harkin and (back in the day when Republicans would cooperate with Democrats in the name of the public good) Bob Dole, in passing the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), which was signed into law 20 years ago last week.

Its impact has been dramatic. A non-scientific survey of 870 disabled people conducted by a University of Texas professor found two-thirds saying the ADA has had more influence on their lives than any other social, cultural or legislative change. One survey respondent wrote: “I became disabled in 1982. I woke up from a coma to find out I was a second-class citizen! I could not go anywhere or do anything. I was an RN and lost my license because I was disabled. In 1990, ADA changed all that. To me the ADA means I have my civil rights and liberties back.”

Access to public accommodations, retail and commercial establishments has improved. “Almost all shops and restaurants are now accessible in the small community I grew up in. It is wonderful to be able to access these establishments with our non-disabled peers,” another respondent wrote.

As I can attest from personal experience, though, even in an ADA world, problems remain. Seemingly minor obstacles loom large. A small ledge at the threshold of my office building, which I had never even noticed as a biped, emerged as a source of daily struggle in my wheelchair. When I could no longer put off my incessant professional travel and the plane on which I was flying parked on the tarmac, the flight attendant told me she hoped I could find a way to get down the steps. Fortunately, I could, slowly, with a pair of crutches. Three days before I would have been stuck.

The Capitol is surely ADA-compliant, but wheeling myself up the ramps to the building was no mean feat, and if I hadn’t been able to reach across to both handrails, I would have been hurtling down those ramps at 30 miles an hour.

Every task becomes more difficult and more time-consuming. The loss of independence and mobility, even for a short time, was a wrenching experience that renewed my respect for those who live with disability as a constant companion.

We often forget, though, that people with disabilities are also voters. They rarely show up on our cross-tabs or campaign plans, but more than 30 million Americans with disabilities are of voting age, and some 15 million actually turned out in 2008, despite physical impediments at over a quarter of the national polling places, according to a Government Accountability Office study.

To put those numbers in perspective, the “disabled vote” is nearly as large as the African-American vote, 50 percent larger than the Latino vote and many times larger than the Jewish vote — all segments that do receive substantial attention from campaigns.

The disabled vote is not only large, it’s also swing — supporting George W. Bush in ’04 and Barack Obama in ’08.

Campaigns as well as lawmakers would do well to devote more attention to this overlooked but important segment.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.