December 7, 2019

Voters Are Hungry for Presidential Candidates to Discuss Disability Policies

Democratic Presidential Candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks during a town hall event on October 18, 2019 in Norfolk, Virginia. Warren discussed measures to curb corruption in Washington, implement structural changes to counter income inequality, and protect democracy. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

Four debates into the democratic presidential primary season, the word “disability” was first mentioned — once by Sen. Elizabeth Warren in the context of disability insurance, and three times by former Rep. Beto O’Rourke in the context of a wealth tax and living wage, telling a story about a woman he met in Las Vegas. “She’s working four jobs, raising her child with disabilities, and any American with disabilities knows just how hard it is to make it and get by in this country already,” he said. Many disability advocates applauded this inclusion of people with disabilities — simply because the word disability was used, even though there was no mention of real policy. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 4 adults in the U.S. have a disability. Furthermore, a new poll reveals that a majority (51%) of the nation’s electorate either have a disability (15%), are related to someone who has a disability (26%) or have a close friend with a disability (11%). Also, the majority of American voters are interested in the candidates’ disability policies.

A vast majority of Americans across the political spectrum (73%) say they are more likely to support candidates for elected office who ensure that children with disabilities get the education and training they need to succeed, and similar majorities (70%) describe themselves as more likely to support candidates who want to expand job and career opportunities for people with disabilities.

With unemployment rates among people with disabilities running more than twice the national average, voters overall say more needs to be done to help people with disabilities integrate into the workforce, starting at a young age.

The poll also found that 85% of registered voters say it is very or somewhat important to them that presidential candidates have campaign events and websites that are open and accessible to people with disabilities, just like everyone else. Voters with disabilities are more enthusiastic about participating in the 2020 elections (52%), four points higher than the national average. Despite both of these data points, none of the presidential candidates on either side has made their websites and social media fully accessible to voters with disabilities, as has been documented and reported in The RespectAbility Report, a publication on the intersection of politics and disability, run by the nonpartisan nonprofit RespectAbility.

“Americans with disabilities are being disenfranchised from the electoral process,” said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of RespectAbility, a nonpartisan nonprofit that fights stigmas and advances opportunities so that people with disabilities can fully participate in all aspects of community. “When campaigns are not accessible, people with disabilities are unable to participate fully, and their voices remain unheard.” 

Previous polling suggested that the disability community narrowly supported President Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. This 2019 poll suggests that those with disabilities and their families and friends now are leaning slightly toward backing the Democratic candidate. They also are slightly more likely to lean Democratic than voters without a connection to disability; however, it is important to note that they are not a monolithic bloc.

“Candidates for office ignore the disability community at their peril,” said former U.S. Rep. and Dallas Mayor Steve Bartlett, who was a primary author of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 and is the board chair of RespectAbility. 

Mentioning disability during a debate and on the campaign trail is an important first step. However, the next step includes real conversations about disability rights and policies important to the 1 in 4 adults with disabilities in America today.

Lauren Appelbaum is vice president of communications of RespectAbility.