Analysis Politics

People With Disabilities Are ‘Severely Underrepresented in Elected Office.’ These Candidates Hope to Change That.

Robyn Powell

Several candidates were quick to point out that running a successful campaign can be very challenging, especially for people with disabilities and others from marginalized communities.

Since the 2016 election, the United States has experienced a historic number of women and people from marginalized communities deciding to run for political office and this year’s elections are already starting to show promise for candidates from diverse backgrounds. Just last week, history was made when Stacey Abrams became the first Black woman to be a major party nominee for governor in the United States.

Dubbed by some as the “Trump effect,” many people who would not have previously considered a career in politics are feeling compelled to do so as the administration puts their rights and lives at stake. And that includes a number of candidates with disabilities running in upcoming local, state, and national elections—some of whom have multiple marginalized identities.

People with disabilities make up a significant segment of our society, and yet for far too long, have been largely excluded from politics. In 2016, 62.7 million eligible voters were expected to either have a disability or had a household member with one, according to researchers at Rutgers University. In other words, more than 25 percent of the total electorate have a personal connection to disability.

Nevertheless, people with disabilities are “severely underrepresented in elected office,” according to the National Council on Independent Living (NCIL), which recently began tracking candidates with disabilities running for office in 2018 and 2019 in a database.

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Certainly, 2018 is not the first time people with disabilities have decided to enter politics. Indeed, we currently have a handful of politicians with disabilities, such as Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and Gov. Greg Abbott (R-TX), who are both wheelchair users. But there is no known data on the number of politicians in the United States who have a disability.

Colleen Flanagan and Dylan Bulkeley founded Disability Action for America, the first and only political action committee dedicated to disability rights, to encourage more people with disabilities to run for office. “Disability Action is committed to electing leaders who value disability rights, like accessibility and inclusion, and who we can trust to advance the disability rights movement if elected,” Flanagan told Rewire.News.

According to Bulkeley, “There are thousands of strong community leaders across the country who have disabilities and would make fantastic representatives, but access to the funds to launch a campaign keep many people from even considering it.”

People with disabilities running for office also contend with accessibility barriers that limit their ability to run successful campaigns. “Running for office while disabled has [its] challenges,” Flanagan noted. “Disability Action candidates have experienced venues inaccessible to wheelchairs,” she said, adding that some deaf candidates had been denied sign language interpretation. “Disability Action for America is working to provide the necessary resources for disabled candidates to meet the challenges of an ableist world.”

“If members of the disability community can’t even attend other candidates’ events, it’s hard to appreciate what being a politician is like, and thus there is less enthusiasm about entering a race yourself,” Bulkeley remarked.

In interviews with Rewire.News, several candidates were quick to point out that running a successful campaign can be very challenging, especially for people with disabilities and others from marginalized communities.

“The majority of the disability community lives below the poverty line. Running for office is cost prohibitive, not just for people with disabilities, but for many marginalized communities,” said Olivia Babis, a Disability Action-endorsed Democratic candidate running for the Florida state senate in District 23.

Indeed, the exorbitant costs of campaigning for public office makes it insurmountable for far too many people. Shockingly, in 2016, the average winning U.S. Senate candidate spent $10.4 million campaigning, and the average winning U.S. House candidate spent $1.3 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. And this year’s 2018 midterm elections are expected to have a historic amount of campaign spending.

Reyma McCoy McDeid, an autistic woman of color and Democratic candidate for the Iowa House of Representatives in District 38 who has also been endorsed by Disability Action, has already begun working to remove financial barriers to running for office in Iowa. “I submitted a request to the state board of ethics to issue an opinion on whether or not candidates can use campaign funds for campaign-related child care expenses. I’m a single parent and child care while campaigning has become a real issue for me,” she told Rewire.News.

“My request was the first of its kind [in the state] and, even if I don’t survive my primary, I hope that the request is approved and state level candidates with young children will have one less barrier to running for office.”

In addition to removing the financial barriers that too often prohibit people with disabilities from running for office, Babis argued that greater attention must be given to cultivating candidates with disabilities. “We need to develop programs to recruit and train people with disabilities to run for office, as well as provide them with the needed resources,” she said.

It is also important that as political organizations push for increasing diversity among candidates, these efforts include the disability community. “We must ensure that all efforts to increase diversity and inclusion also include [people with disabilities],” Jennifer Longdon, a Democratic candidate for District 24 in the Arizona House of Representatives, noted in an email to Rewire.News. “Every leadership training program and political readiness program should examine [its] recruiting and training practices to ensure they are inclusive of the [people with disabilities] within their base.”

The candidates interviewed by Rewire.News expressed a variety of reasons why they were running for office.

McCoy McDeid was motivated to run after witnessing the low voter turnout in the state during the 2016 election.

“I lead an organization that mobilizes people to participate in the political process. I also live in a district where 3,000 registered Democrats and no party voters stayed home on election day 2016,” McCoy McDeid said. “I wanted to use my expertise to activate those people and flip this district for the first time in twenty years.”

In addition to her professional experience, McCoy McDeid said her candidacy is informed by her disability. “My disability renders me very perceptive to the needs of normal everyday imperfect Iowans because I am one of them.”

Similarly, South Dakota state Sen. Billie Sutton (D-Burke) says his disability motivated him to run for the South Dakota state senate in 2010, and informs his current campaign for governor. In 2007, Sutton was involved in a rodeo accident that left him paralyzed. “I knew I had an important choice to make: roll over and quit or dust myself off and fight for a better life,” Sutton said in a statement to Rewire.News.

Sutton believes that becoming governor would allow him to continue fighting for others. “I know I’m ready and able to take on the issues South Dakota faces, not in spite of my life-altering accident and disability, but, in part, because of it. The challenges I’ve overcome in my life have prepared me to lead with a unique determination and unmatched ability to listen and understand the struggles people face.”

Longdon’s life was completely changed in 2004 when she was shot and paralyzed. “I lost my health care, dealt with poverty, the threat of homelessness, and struggled to regain employment. I’ve worked for community integration and civil rights protections of marginalized communities ever since,” she told Rewire.News. Longdon was recently endorsed by former lawmaker Gabrielle Giffords and by Disability Action.

“I cannot be separated from my disability. The moment I became a person with a disability, I lost my privilege and [became] invisible to most people. It was a harsh lesson in the power of privilege and I’ve never forgotten,” Longdon explained. “As a result, I have worked on equity issues for a very long time, including helping to pass the city of Phoenix amendments to the non-discrimination ordinance (codifying the rights of the LGBTIA+ and disability communities), immigration justice, economic justice, etc.”

Babis was likewise inspired to run because of her personal experience as a disabled woman as well as professional experience working at a Center for Independent Living. Babis is a double amputee and believes her disability gives her a “different perspective on issues.”

If elected, Babis plans to fight for better supports and services for people with disabilities. “It is unacceptable to me that we aren’t funding programs that provide the resources and supports which people need in order to function in the richest country in the world,” she said.

Of course, candidates with disabilities are not just interested in addressing issues facing other people with disabilities. Because disability crosses all identities—including gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, immigration status, religion, and political affiliation—all issues are “disability issues” and having candidates who understand the wide-range of experiences their constituents face is beneficial for everyone.

Noting the lack of available human services in her state, Babis said: “This doesn’t just affect the disability population; these are issues that affect seniors, veterans, people of color, and other people in marginalized communities.”

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