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November 3, 2020, might become one of the most important days in American history, especially for people with disabilities. It may decide over whether a person with a chronic illness or disability will have access to health insurance over the next four years or if they can find affordable housing or employment. And people with disabilities understand the importance of voting. A survey by Easterseals reveals that 91 percent of eligible people with disabilities have already or are planning to vote during the 2020 election. ABILITY Magazine spoke with Kimberly Cohn, VP Marketing Communications for Easterseals, and Howard McBroom, Disability Activist and Staff Member about the survey and the reason why voting is crucial this year.
In fact, people with disabilities could strongly influence the election, if not swing it entirely, because one in four Americans – 61 million people – lives with a disability. More than half of those – 38 million Americans with disabilities – are over the age of 18 and eligible to vote in the 2020 election, according to a projection by Rutgers University. This number grew by 20 percent since 2018. In total, 240 million people are eligible to vote this year, meaning that people with disabilities make up 16 percent of all voters.
And people with disabilities are particularly vocal throughout this election. Using the Hashtag #CripTheVote, they talk about political issues the community faces and motivate others to make their voices heard.
Howard McBroom is one of many activists supporting people with disabilities throughout this election. As an advocate and staff member working for Easterseals, a nonprofit healthcare organization, he helped with their internal campaign to assist people with registering and knowing how and where to vote. “I support people with disabilities by telling them about the ‘We Are the 25’ campaign with Easterseals to get the disability vote out. I do everything to encourage the disabled population to go out and vote,” he says. McBroom has autism and is a wheelchair-user. “Autism makes it difficult for me to communicate with people and to understand certain social situations. Additionally, not being able to walk affects my life in many ways,” he says. The ‘We Are the 25’ campaign was Easterseals’s effort to call attention to the disability vote, not only to encourage people with disabilities to vote but also to make the general public aware that disabled people comprise a significant part of the American population.
People with disabilities are enthusiastic about voting
People with disabilities don’t only appear to be more engaged than ever regarding voting, they actually are. A survey conducted by Pathfinder on behalf of Easterseals showed that 90 percent of all adults with disabilities are registered voters, and half of those already voted, with another 44 percent planning to do so. Moreover, of those likely to vote, more than 50 percent say they are doing it enthusiastically and have stronger feelings towards this year’s election compared to the elections before. “Our CEO Mark Whitley was inspired by a survey he saw that was done by the organization GLAAD focusing on LGBTQ issues, and he thought people with disabilities should have their voices heard, and a survey might be a good way to tap into how people with disabilities were planning to vote and how engaged they were regarding the election,” Kim Cohn, Vice President of Communications for Easterseals Southern California, says.
According to Kim Cohn, nationwide, 800 people with disabilities, who were representative of the 38 million possible disabled voters, participated in the survey. Their political affiliation was about equally distributed between both parties, Democrats and Republicans. “The disability vote represents a huge block of Americans. In addition, people with disabilities are of different races, genders and sexual orientation. So they represent America as a whole. And we’re not sure if the public recognizes that fact when they think about people with disabilities,” Cohn states. In her opinion, the exceptionally high voter turnout means that people with disabilities really want both candidates to hear their voices. “People with disabilities need to realize the power that they have, and they need to speak up. We need to tell people who we are, where we’re coming from, what our problems are, why we need help, and above all, why people should get us that help? Because it’s not going to be in their interest to give us the help we need. That’s why we have to vote,” McBroom adds.
Voting and accessibility
While voting might not seem like a significant challenge for the general population, some people with disabilities do not have access to polling stations. A study conducted by the Government Accountability Office during the 2016 election examined 178 polling stations in the US and found that 60 percent of those had one or more accessibility barrier. Based on the Easterseals survey, one-third of their respondents need one or more accommodations to be able to vote – most commonly, a wheelchair ramp, followed by assisted voting, an ASL interpreter, and Braille ballots – and 17 percent of those requiring accommodations say their needs are not met by local agencies. “Many people are voting by mail this year, which makes this election a little unusual and maybe a bit less of a challenge in terms of physical accessibility. But for those who do have to go to the polls, some of them may face obstacles in terms of accessibility,” Cohn says.
“Additionally, people that had not voted yet via mail-in ballots were very concerned about exposure to COVID, making them hesitant to vote this year,” she adds. The survey shows that 27 percent may not take part in the election out of a fear of COVID-19. However, residents of California, for example, can all vote via mail-in ballots since Governor Newsom signed an executive order and sent out ballots to all registered voters “to provide an accessible, secure, and safe election,” says Alex Padilla, Secretary of State, in a May press release. Other states allow mail-in ballots as well. However, whatever the challenges and barriers, people with disabilities find a way to vote, and they have good reasons for this.
Healthcare is their highest priority
“Regardless of people’s political affiliation across the board, they felt strongly about the Affordable Care Act (ACA),” Kim Cohn explains. With 44 and 43 percent, the leading issues motivating people to vote were the candidates’ COVID-19 response and healthcare policies overall. “Often, people with disabilities have health issues related to their disability. And generally, as a group, it is harder for people with disabilities to become employed. So they may not have health insurance via an employer. The ACA has provided access to healthcare to people with disabilities,” Kim Cohn illustrates. Their main priorities regarding healthcare policies were: “protecting coverage for pre-existing conditions, expanding Medicare and Medicaid, allowing kids to be covered by their parent’s insurance until the age of 26 and prohibiting insurance companies from setting a lifetime limit.
With the current election, the differences in policies couldn’t be more on opposing sides. The American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), in collaboration with the National Council on Independent Living (NCIL) and the REV UP Campaign, developed a questionnaire asking both candidates, President Trump and opponent Joe Biden, about their disability policies, but so far, only Biden responded. In this questionnaire, Biden states he will be a “president who understands that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.” He bases his answer on his own experiences growing up as a child who was stuttering and, as a consequence, faced discrimination. His healthcare policy is focused on protecting the funding of Medicaid in order for people with disabilities to continue having access to long-term home services. However, most importantly, under Obama, Biden implemented the ACA, which protects people with pre-existing conditions from getting discriminated against by health insurances based on their illness. “I will build on the ACA to make sure people with disabilities have access to insurance. Access to affordable health insurance shouldn’t depend on your zip code or income,” Biden states in the questionnaire.
President Trump, on the other hand, does not support the ACA and wants to enable some states to limit funding for Medicaid. Recently, it has been suggested to defund organizations like Planned Parenthood, which would make it impossible for women to have access to abortions and family planning overall. One week after the election, the ACA is going to be discussed in front of the Supreme Court – with a recently deceased Ruth Bader Ginsburg – where the Trump administration is trying to reverse it altogether. This would cause 20 million people to lose their health insurance; pre-existing conditions would be excluded from coverage; and children wouldn’t be able to be on their parents’ insurance until the age of 26 – the most pressing issues stated by people with disabilities, based on Easterseals’s findings. When asked what his main fears are regarding the election and its outcome, Howard McBroom is more concerned about general human rights. “I am worried there will be a civil war; I am worried we will lose all our constitutional rights. I really hope for a peaceful transition of power, but I don’t know if that’s going to happen or not,” he says.
Another interesting finding of the survey highlights the diversity within disability culture. People with disabilities often identify as one or more additional minority. Especially in the LGBTQ community, a high number of people are also disabled. According to the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, up to 39 percent of the transgender population reported living with one or more disabilities. So it is not surprising that Americans with disabilities are equally fighting discrimination not only regarding their disability but also towards gender identity, sexual orientation and sex. Moreover, 10 percent of all people answering Easterseals’s survey identified as LGBTQ themselves. People with disabilities are a cross-section of the general population, making them so valuable in this election. They represent various communities and their challenges, and as Easterseals shows, they speak out and stand up for their rights. “Disabled people contribute as much as other people. We all should realize our own strength and the power we have. We need to work together to ensure that we get more participation in society,” McBroom ends.
Undoubtedly, this election is a trailblazing event that will decide over the future of many Americans with chronic health conditions and disabilities and all the other intersectional communities alike. With people with disabilities being the largest minority in the US, the responsibility lies on all of us to influence the outcome of the 2020 election. So if you haven’t already, vote if you can. Our future might depend on it.
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by Karina Ulrike Sturm