Tanzina Vega: About one in five eligible US voters has a disability, but unlike other major voting blocks, the disability community still doesn't get a lot of attention when it comes to elections. That changed a little bit last week when President-elect Joe Biden acknowledged the disability community in his victory speech.
Joe Biden: We must make the promise of the country real for everybody, no matter their race, their ethnicity, their faith, their identity, or their disability.
Tanzina: Disability rights activists and allies praised the moment on social media and for many, it was long overdue in our national politics. Meanwhile, voters with disabilities continued to face obstacles at the ballot box. Expanded mail-in voting because of COVID-19 made it easier for some people with disabilities to vote this year, but that's not been the case for everyone. In other states, inaccessible polling sites, broken machines, or the absence of curbside voting, further complicated the electoral process. For more on this, I'm joined by Ari Ne'eman, a senior research associate at the Harvard Law School Project on Disability. Ari, great to have you with us.
Ari Ne'eman: Thanks so much for having me on the show.
Tanzina: Let's define the community that we're talking about. When we talk about people with disabilities, who are we talking about?
Ari: The Americans with Disabilities Act was written to define disability very broadly. Disability rights protections include people who use wheelchairs, people with Down syndrome, and other things that are commonly thought of as disability is, but they also extend to a wide variety of chronic conditions like diabetes, COPD, and many of the conditions that increase vulnerability to COVID-19. In fact, disability rights legal protections are more important than ever and have been very important tools for people with disabilities who are concerned about how the pandemic may be impacting their ability to engage with the broader world.
Tanzina: Do we have a sense of how large this voting block is in the United States?
Ari: Like other communities, people with disabilities and their families don't necessarily vote in unison. However, approximately one in five Americans has a disability of some kind.
Tanzina: What, if any, can you tell us about the turnout this year? Which of course for 2020 was unique year for so many voters just in terms of accessibility, in terms of the pandemic restrictions, but for people with disabilities, do we know what their turnout numbers were like this year?
Ari: One of the unfortunate realities of the disability community being ignored in national politics for so long is that the disability vote isn't included in most polling or exit polling. We actually have a pretty clear idea of what the disability vote was like in 2018, where it's surged by eight-and-a-half points relative to the 2014 mid-term elections, but we don't necessarily have hard numbers regarding the disability vote in 2020 yet. We'll likely have that in a few months when census data comes out.
Now, I think anecdotally the information suggests that COVID has impacted disability turnout in some very interesting ways. In states that opted for greater use of mail-in voting, people with disabilities may have had an easier time voting than they may have had in the past when mail-in voting was more restricted. In states that made a mail-in voting and curbside voting more difficult, people with disabilities may have had and almost certainly did have a harder time voting as you had to risk your life in order to enter an in-person polling place. That really represents a significant barrier to exercising the franchise.
This is something that's played out in particular in states that have restricted the use of accommodations to people who can prove a disability. In Texas, for example, mail-in voting was only made available if you could show that you have a disability. One of the things we've seen is that when those kinds of bureaucratic requirements are put in place, lots of people who would be eligible for mail-in voting and eligible for other kinds of accommodations, just don't know how to navigate the process or may not even know that having a chronic health condition like diabetes or many others qualifies them for disability accommodations.
Tanzina: Ari, granted many voting blocks are not monoliths and I imagine that holds true for people with disabilities, but are there common areas that motivate this group to get to the polls?
Ari: One of the top priorities is expanding home and community-based services. Supports that keep people with disabilities in their own homes rather than forcing people into institutions or nursing homes in order to get help. We've seen during COVID-19 that nursing home placement can be a death sentence for many people with disabilities. Even before COVID people simply didn't want to give up their freedom in order to access support.
One of the most exciting things about the 2020 democratic primary is that we saw campaigns compete with each other in order to put forward ambitious proposals on how to expand home and community-based services. A lot of folks are very excited to see how Joe Biden the president-elect will work to fulfill some of those promises.
Tanzina: Disability issues from what we understand have historically been bipartisan, has that changed in this current iteration of Washington, where pretty much everything is a partisan issue?
Ari: We're beginning to see partisan polarization around disability as well. It's very concerning in large part because that wasn't always the case. If you look back to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act that was signed into law under George H. W. Bush's administration and had a number of prominent Republican champions like Lowell Weicker and Bob Dole, we've just seen a real shift in the Republican Party to the extent which any proposals for expanded resources, expanded civil rights protections are met with intense resistance.
In part, because of that, there's growing conversation about how we can make disability rights part of the larger progressive coalition which is something of an unusual space for a community that's historically thought of itself as a bipartisan issue but in a lot of ways, it's just a natural outgrowth of the radicalization of the Republican party.
Tanzina: I recall earlier on in the Trump administration, President Trump mocked a New York Times reporter who has a disability and I should be transparent that I know that reporter and I've worked with them at The New York Times, but what tone did that set in terms of the way the Republican Party views people with disabilities?
Ari: Certainly folks were not happy about President Trump mocking Serge Kovaleski, but I think folks were even less happy about the Trump administration proposing to cut hundreds of billions of dollars in Medicaid funding or the administration rescinding Department of Justice guidance on integrating people with disabilities into the workforce or countless other areas where the Trump administration has rolled back Obama-era protections around disability rights.
The disability rights community is a very policy-oriented community. It's interesting. I would say that if you talk to most disability activists, they're going to point to the various ways in which the Trump administration has attacked disability rights legal protections, and sought to slash disability service funding rather than very high profile of the president mocking Serge Kovaleski.
When we talk about the harms the Trump administration has caused in terms of disability politics, folks tend to be very brass tacks and there's just such a strong body of evidence showing that the Trump administration has made things worse for disability services, for the programs that people with disabilities depend on.
Tanzina: We've been seeing a lot of attention at least the pre-pandemic paid to representation of people with disabilities, for example, in advertising campaigns, and in media, for example. Do we need more representation of people with disabilities, congressional members with disabilities in order to move these issues forward and perhaps avoid the lack of bipartisanship that we're seeing today?
Ari: I think we do. There's a concept called the hidden army. The hidden army is the wide number of people with disabilities and family members of people with disabilities in positions of influence and Congress, the executive branch and even the media. That's been a huge asset for the disability rights movement. Certainly, we do want to see more disabled elected officials. There's been growing interest in that.
Groups like the National Council for Independent Living and the American Association of People with Disabilities have been working to encourage greater opportunities for disabled people to run for office, and to help build more infrastructure for turning out the disability vote. I would say that the disability community represents a potential sleeping giant in American politics. If you look at some of the places where disability activists have been engaged on social media and particularly influential CripTheVote hashtag started by Alice Wong and a number of other disability activists, candidates really went to where the community was.
You saw a number of top tier candidates in the primary do hashtag conversations with CripTheVote, issue comprehensive disability policy proposals, really engaging with the grassroots of the disability community. I think campaigns realize that this is an area that really drives voting behavior to a significant extent because it is so near and dear to people's lives.
Tanzina: Ari Ne'eman is a senior research associate at the Harvard Law School project on disability. Ari, thanks for joining us.