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Disability Rights Should Be Central in US Presidential Race

Widespread Inaccessibility Blocks Many from Full Inclusion in Elections

Protesters supporting people with disabilities gather outside the White House in Washington, May 15, 2017. © 2017 AP Photo/Susan Walsh

This week, ten United States presidential candidates will take the stage to debate climate change, healthcare, immigration, economic inequality, and education – all of which have direct implications for people with disabilities. But will there be any mention of disability rights?

During July’s debates, not a single question or answer touched on disability rights. The absence of this key issue in the debates underscores the obstacles people with disabilities face trying to take part meaningfully in the American political system.

One in four Americans live with a disability, including 35 million people of voting age. But voter turnout among people with disabilities is low. According to one analysis, if people with disabilities voted at the same rate as other US voters, they would cast 2.35 million additional votes. Candidates should work to improve accessibility for and engagement of people with disabilities in this election cycle.  

Almost 30 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law, the US electoral system is still shockingly inaccessible for people with disabilities. Earlier this summer, one study found that every 2020 presidential candidate’s website failed to comply with the ADA. The US Government Accountability Office found that more than half of all polling places it examined around the 2016 presidential election had at least one obstacle for people with disabilities: voting stations that were not accessible for wheelchair users, dysfunctional earphones for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, and lack of privacy for voters with disabilities.

Unfortunately, these obstacles are not limited to polling stations; lack of reasonable accommodations also affects elected representatives once in office. A Wisconsin state representative, Jimmy Anderson, who uses a wheelchair and has difficulty traveling, was denied his request to dial-in to legislative meetings by phone. Refusing to provide this reasonable accommodation sets a dangerous precedent for all Americans with disabilities.

In spite of these challenges, 2018 midterms saw a promising increase in voting rates among people with disabilities.

Silence on disability rights during the 2020 presidential race – particularly amid many minority-specific discussions around racism, immigration, and women’s rights – is both notable and unacceptable. Candidates seeking elected office should work to uplift the voices of all constituents, including the quarter of Americans who have disabilities, and champion policies that would promote their full inclusion in US politics.

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