Civil Rights

The inaccessible office: The missing disabled voice in politics

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2018 has positioned itself to be a monumental and historic year when it comes to diversity and inclusion in politics. Primary races and elections over the past year have been a veritable call to action, with people from diverse ethnicities, races, ages, and gender-identities winning in record numbers. Now is the time for people who have far too long lived at the margins, people whose voices have long been excluded from the very conversations that directly impact their lives.

One group, however, whose presence in politics remains illusory and whose voice continues to be drowned out is people with disabilities. The absence of people with disabilities in government today mirrors the absence I saw 12 years ago when I ran for New York State Senate as a woman with quadriplegia. These are the conditions that foster exclusion and perpetuate biases of what our legislators should look like and who our decision-makers ought to be. This is ultimately to everyone’s detriment, as better and more comprehensive solutions to complex problems are much more likely to develop when they incorporate diverse experiences and ways of life—that is the moral imperative and practical rationale behind inclusion. Therefore, as we work towards a more inclusive body of legislators, people with disabilities must be involved.

{mosads}According to the 2016 Disability Statistics Report, 12.6 percent of the U.S. population lives with a disability—some 45 million people. These numbers are on a steady rise, as the population ages and as medical advances allow people to live longer and healthier lives following the onset of disability. In 2016, it was estimated that 62.7 million voters, either had or had a relative with a disability. “Disability,” as specified in the civil rights legislation, the Americans with Disabilities Act, implies a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity. However, this language is antiquated, and researchers and activists have come to favor the more inclusive International Classification of Functioning definition of “functioning,” which denotes a positive or normatively-neutral interaction between a person’s health and that individual’s contextual, environmental, and personal factors that make social participation possible. Generally speaking, disability falls into the categories of vision, hearing, cognitive, ambulatory, self-care, and independent living, and these appear at different rates across the population. On a worldwide scale, people with disabilities represent the largest minority.

Yet, despite the immensity of these numbers, people with disabilities are vastly underrepresented in elected office, at all levels. The National Council on Independent Living, a nonprofit advocacy and disability-rights organization, has tracked the number of candidates with disabilities running in the 2018 federal elections. According to their open source database—which they admit may not be fully complete given a societal reluctance to disclose a disability—only 11 candidates with a disability are running for either U.S. House of Representatives or U.S. Senate. Of these, five have either dropped out or lost in a primary. This is a mere 2.3 percent of the 470 congressional seats open, and it is only 1/6 the proportion of their representation in general society. While it is troubling enough that our legislators do not look like the general population, this is exacerbated by the fact that people with disabilities are far more marginally affected by the results of policy measures. Critical and hotly-contested issues like cuts to Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income, cuts to Medicaid, cuts to Medicare, the elimination of independent living programs, cuts to Centers for Excellence and Developmental Disabilities, the growth of a National Paid Family Medical Leave Plan, funding for Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, support for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—these are not mere political arguments for people with disabilities, but matters of life and death. The disability rights movement began with the rallying cry, “nothing about us, without us,” which implies that decisions regarding the lives and welfare of people with disabilities should not be made without the consultation of disabled people themselves. What more influential position than legislators to contribute to these conversations?

I do not mean to imply that running for public office is easy or even that the demands placed on candidates without disabilities are the same as those placed on candidates with disabilities. To be sure, when living with a disability, every aspect of your day, and therefore your campaign, must be thought about differently and must take into consideration more potential difficulties than nondisabled candidates ever account for. There are daily impediments and personal, healthcare, or circumstantial obstacles that can complicate the pursuit of office for people with disabilities. As a candidate, I would travel with a team of volunteers to help knock on doors, as many homes had steps to the doorway that were inaccessible for me. I would attend speeches and press events with my own stand and microphone, knowing that podiums often could not accommodate wheelchairs. I always had to be prepared to answer the consistent question, “are you physically able to be a politician?” But these are skills you learn, creativity you employ, and questions you answer by the doing, not simply the saying.

It has long been demonstrated, empirically and anecdotally, that organizations and decision-makers regularly make better and more comprehensive decisions when a diversity of voices is included. For too long, in most aspects of society but in politics quite particularly, inclusion of diverse voices and points of view has not meant the inclusion of people with disabilities. This is not true inclusion; it is inclusion à la carte. This is also despite the fact that people with disabilities are often forced by circumstance to adopt the types of leadership, creativity, problem-solving, and resilience skills that excellence in elected office demands. People with disabilities must not only have the courage but also the opportunity to run for political office, and, if we hope to bring about the best society possible, we must have the courage and opportunity to elect them.

Brooke Ellison is a Political Partner with Truman National Security Project. She is also a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader and a member of the Board of Directors of the New York Civil Liberties Union. Views expressed are her own.


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