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In Case You Missed It: Highlights from the 2021 Disability Vote Summit

by | Sep 15, 2021 | Blog, Disability Culture, Disability Rights, Education

Text: Disability Vote Summit: Understanding the Disability Vote, September 14, 2021 | 12pm - 4pm ET. The text is white on a dark blue background with the date and time in black text on a white pill banner, and a pattern of white dots covers the bottom part of the graphic.

By Alexa Berry | September 15, 2021

Yesterday, the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) and the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN) hosted the Disability Vote Summit. The goal of the virtual Summit was to provide advocates with information and strategies to further their advocacy as well as provide policymakers with information to better understand the disability community and their impact on elections. The Disability Vote Summit was part of National Disability Voter Registration Week, a larger effort by AAPD’s REV UP Campaign. In case you missed it, this blog shares some highlights from the event.

The summit opened yesterday with Curt Decker, President of NDRN, speaking about the power of the disability vote. There are over 38 million eligible voters with disabilities, but despite being the largest minority voting bloc, candidates for public office rarely speak about disability issues or speak directly to voters with disabilities.

Over 400 attendees—advocates, activists, and policymakers—tuned in to learn from experts about accessibility and the experiences of disabled voters during the 2020 election. Attendees also learned strategies to shape their advocacy to increase enfranchisement and combat voter suppression. Conversations during the 4-hour event on Tuesday focused on voter turnout, election accessibility with a particular focus on language and information access, and the importance of coalitions and working together in the fight for voting rights.

The data presented by Rutgers University, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), Self Advocates Becoming Empowered (SABE), and NDRN confirmed what the disability community already know: that voters with disabilities are engaged and motivated to vote, but face many more barriers to the ballot than voters without disabilities.

Dr. Douglas Kruse and Dr. Lisa Schur of Rutgers University presented data from their study, Disability and Voter Turnout in the 2020 Elections, an in-depth look at how voters with disabilities cast their ballots. Mirroring trends for all voting in 2020, voter turnout for people with disabilities surged in 2020; 17.7 million people with disabilities voted, accounting for 11% of all people who cast a ballot. Dr. Kruse and Dr. Schur attributed this record turnout to states’ shift to mail-in ballots and the urgency of the 2020 election. Dr. Kruse and Dr. Schur also found that people with disabilities are twice as likely to experience barriers to voting than people without disabilities. Among voters with disabilities, Black voters with disabilities experienced waiting times that were twice as long as non-Black voters with disabilities. Their data gave insight into the differences between voters without disabilities and voters with disabilities, and voting disparities within the disability community.

Additional data presentations from Jeff Kaloc and Lou Ann Blake from NFB and Essie Pederson and Diana Mairose, from the SABE Go Voter Project, showed how voters with certain disabilities were affected by barriers to vote. From the NFB 2020 Blind and Low-Vision Voter Survey, Jeff Kaloc and Lou Ann Blake shared that based on their data, they found poll worker training to be lacking. The NFB surveys found that federal election after federal election, one-third of respondents said that their polling place’s accessible voting machine was not running when they arrived to vote. Essie Pederson and Diana Mairose from SABE presented the findings of their GoVoter 2020 Voter Experience Survey, sharing how people with developmental disabilities (DD) voted or didn’t vote, and why. Their presentation focused on the disparities between Black voters with DD and all other survey respondents. A finding that garnered many reactions from the audience was that of the survey respondents, 7 out of 10 Black voters said the reason they did not vote was that they were told they could not vote, compared to 5 out of 10 of all voters were told they could not vote. In addition, the majority of first-time voters that filled out the survey identified as Black or Asian American. Jack Rosen from NDRN made the final data presentation, speaking about the Election Omnibus Findings from Lake Research Partners and The Tarrance Group that explored political preferences and issues that were important to voters. The survey found that disability issues affected more than just voters with disabilities; while 15% of survey respondents identified as having a disability, an additional 25% of survey respondents reported having a close family member with a disability. Despite this large swath of voters connected to disability issues, of all the voters surveyed, over two-thirds did not recall hearing any mention of disability issues by the candidates running in 2020. Disabled voters in swing states, which are often inundated with ads and candidate messaging, were least likely to hear candidates mention disability. 

The two panels during the Summit included speakers from across the spectrum of the disability community. The first panel, moderated by Sarah Blahovec of the National Council on Independent Living with Kriston Pumphrey of Communication Service for the Deaf, Terry Ao Minnis of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, and Ben Jackson of the Election Assistance Commission centered around access, particularly language access, for the deaf community, people with cognitive disabilities, and non-native English speakers. Speakers stressed how important it is for people with disabilities to be involved in all the aspects of elections, including becoming poll workers and working on the language for ballot initiatives, in order for voting to be more inclusive and accessible. Ben Jackson said, “…a lot of the decisions that are going to be impacting voters with disabilities, and voters generally, are going to be happening on a local level.” His point is particularly significant in 2021, as many states and local municipalities will be having elections this year that will decide governors, city council members, and ballot initiatives that affect the day-to-day lives of disabled people.

The second panel, moderated by Marlene Sallo of the Disability Law Center, with Cedric Lawson of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and The Leadership Conference Education Fund, Teresa Moore of Self Advocates Becoming Empowered, and Gaylon Tootle of Walton Options, focused on the importance of coalition building, community, and relationships in the fight for accessibility ballot access and accessibility overall. Gaylon Tootle said it best: “What we need from everybody is to understand we’re in it together… So if one section of the community is being discriminated against, then all of us are. And if that is what we’re here to do, to improve the lives of folks with disabilities, then we implore you to get out there with us and make sure they enforce the ADA, Title II… It’s the law. And if we do it, as Cedric said, in mass as a group, we can get it done.” Both Cedric Lawson and Gaylon Tootle also encouraged attendees to contact decision-makers, whether it be in their community—faith leaders, youth and student groups, etc.—or at the national level and advocate for themselves and their rights.

Attendees also received video messages about the power and importance of the disability vote from Susan Diegelman, AAPD Board of Directors Chair, Rebecca Cokley, Program Officer for the U.S. Disability Rights Portfolio in the Office of the President at the Ford Foundation, Wade Henderson, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights interim president and CEO, Donald Palmer, United States Election Assistance Commission Chairman, Cedric Richmond, Senior Advisor to the President and Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, and the Honorable Kim Wyman, Washington Secretary of State. In his video, Wade Henderson said “Disability rights are civil and human rights. We need the collective power of our coalition more than ever as state lawmakers turn their backs on voters and create egregious barriers to the ballot. This is our moment to act right now.” 

Maria Town, President and CEO of AAPD, closed the Summit by driving home the importance of voting for the disability community as voting gives people with disabilities the opportunity to self-direct their own lives. As she stated in her closing, “Voting is a way that says we are here. We deserve to be here and we deserve to be in a world that works for us and with us.”

The recording and transcript for the Disability Vote Summit will be publicly available soon.