According to the 2012 United States Census Bureau, one in five individuals are living with a disability, making individuals with disabilities the largest minority group in the country. This statistic grows larger every year,
and the United States Census does not account for every single individual making this number larger. Being that the number of individuals living with disabilities in country is so large, then why do so little of us represented in this population vote, hold public office, and participate in civic engagement? The obvious comes to mind like lack of access, lack of information, lack of adequate care, transportation, institutionalization, and the list goes on. However, is part of the problem, mistrust, inability to relate, lack of education on how to participate, motivation, isolation, apathy, and hopelessness?
In a study performed by Rutgers and Syracuse Universities in 2012 called Disability, Voter Turnout, and Voting Difficulties in the 2012 Elections, it was found that individuals with disabilities voted less than individuals without disabilities. Some of the reasons were lack of accessibility, lack of courtesy by people working at the polling places, and lack of assistance both from individuals voting in person and by mail. In San Mateo County, California, E Slate voting was introduced to alleviate some of the physical inaccessibility of filling in a ballot, and giving individuals autonomy to vote on their own. All was great in theory, but still did not address other contributing factors in making voting accessible for individuals with disabilities. In 2015, mail in ballots were available to alleviate some of the inaccessibility of having to physically go to a polling place. The idea of electronic voting was also introduced. Again, all good in theory, but that still does not address other underlying factors of why individuals with disabilities are not represented as voters. Ignorance to the needs of individuals with disabilities, lack of advocacy around the needs, and underrepresentation of those who live and breathe around the needs is ultimately the problem.
Some of the most effective ways of creating social change is through education, advocacy, empowerment, and visibility. One of the ways to achieve this is through civic engagement and leadership. Individuals with disabilities are sorely underrepresented when it comes to holding position of leadership and being involved in community groups that can create changes in the decisions made on behalf of individuals with disabilities. In San Mateo County, California there is a San Mateo County Voter Accessibility Committee, but without actual individuals living with disabilities serving on the committee, only our allies can advocate for us, another decision made about us without us. I have been serving for the past three years on the San Mateo County Commission on Disabilities, in which I chair the Advocacy, Legislation, and Outreach Committee. The San Mateo County Commission on Disabilities provides direct recommendation and advocacy on behalf of individuals with disabilities living in San Mateo County to the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors. Without the commission and everyone who serves individuals with disabilities, and their allies, decisions would be made without any input from the community that is affected. There is only so much work that can be accomplished by this particular group. More individuals need to get involved to be able to continue working towards every issue that individuals with disabilities face every day or situations like underrepresentation in voting will continue to happen. Yes, there are definite issues around why individuals with disabilities do not participate in civic engagement and leadership, however, again, if these issues are never visible, or advocated for, it will never change.
I urge every individual reading this to at least try and be part of the process of social change. If civic engagement and leadership are overwhelming, start small. Begin by voting. Research each proposition, initiative, candidate local and nationwide to make an educated and informed vote. Regardless of what political party, philosophy, or group you are affiliated with, you will be part of the solution of making individuals with disabilities visible in the political process. If civic engagements and leadership sounds like something you can do, start by making changes in your own community. Get involved because local level change can lead to global level change. It is also contagious, if more individuals give the example of participating others may get the courage to participate themselves. Let’s stop being invisible, attend rallies, town hall meetings, committee and commission meetings, anything that can hold people accountable to create accessibility and answering the question of those individuals directly affected by the decisions that are made for them.
Cruz R. Reynoso, (ret.) Justice of the California Supreme Court and Professor, U.C. Davis School of Law: “Equal voting is the essence of a democracy. Nonetheless, even though in CA we have good laws, we have heard of the inapplicability of those laws so often that fair elections continue to be a challenged process in CA. As is often said, vigilance and an active citizenry have to be one of the important solutions.”
By Guest Blogger Ligia Andrade
(C-level injury, California)