Zachary Lewis has watched politicians compete for votes from the middle class, Latino voters, and LGBTQ communities. He has listened to presidential candidates debate how they’ll support farmers or fight for racial justice.
But Lewis, 38, who is paralyzed from the waist down, said he rarely if ever hears politicians speak to people with disabilities — or advocate for the policies they need.
“When I hear [politicians] talk, I don’t hear them talking to me at all — as a human being, as a person with a disability,” said Lewis, who lives in West Philadelphia and is executive director of Disabled in Action, a civil rights group that fights disability discrimination. “I am constantly making noise to be heard, but I don’t feel like anyone is listening.”
People with disabilities have the potential to be a powerful voting bloc, research shows. More than 38 million people with disabilities are eligible to vote — about 16% of the American electorate, according to a September Rutgers University study. In Pennsylvania, a pivotal swing state that could determine who wins the White House, people with disabilities represent more than 17% of the electorate.
But the electoral power of these voters has long gone untapped. Candidates often don’t announce plans to address issues people with disabilities face, like unequal access to housing, health care, and employment. And people with disabilities vote at slightly lower rates — the product of physical barriers to access and socioeconomic challenges.
The disability community is diverse in race, age, and type of disability. And since Americans with disabilities fall into various other voting blocs, it can be difficult to track how they vote.
“We are Republicans, we are Democrats, we are the activist community,” said Gregg Beratan, a co-creator of #CripTheVote, a nonpartisan viral social media campaign that connects people with disabilities to politicians and works to increase voter turnout.
“If you come after the disability community, if you consider our issues and how issues affect us, then you can turn the tide of an election," he said.
Some candidates are starting to recognize that. Voter turnout among people with disabilities rose between the 2014 and 2018 midterm elections, after falling between 2012 and 2016. And over the last four years, candidates have started unveiling policy plans and building political coalitions to address disability issues — in large part due to the work of disability activists.
‘It’s time you took us seriously'
President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law in 1990. But in recent years, Democrats have spoken to the needs of the disability community the most, voters and advocates said, especially when it comes to health care.
Almost every 2020 Democratic presidential candidate released a policy proposal supporting people with disabilities, something that would have been unheard of even four years ago, Beratan said.
“We have seen disabled people just assert themselves across the country to say, ‘It’s time you took us seriously,’” said Beratan, who is neurodivergent.
Former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign has a proposed plan for expanding disability rights. The Team Biden Disability coalition, which has a Pennsylvania chapter, hosts weekly phone banks and has also done roundtable events focused on topics like chronic illness, health equity, and gun violence.
President Donald Trump’s campaign hasn’t released a plan for addressing disability inequality. Trump’s campaign didn’t respond to a candidate questionnaire by the American Association of People with Disabilities, while Biden’s provided a 32-page response.
“President Trump and his team are fighting for every eligible voter to have their vote count — and that unequivocally includes Americans with disabilities," Trump campaign spokesperson Thea McDonald said in a statement.
Representation across party lines
"The disability community at large has enormous political power,” said Jim Dickson, cochair of the voting rights task force at the National Council on Independent Living. “But on this one topic of voting, it doesn’t always speak with a single voice.”
About 50% of respondents with disabilities lean Democratic, while 42% lean Republican, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center poll.
Kathryn Blaker, a 67-year-old from Washington, Pa., where about 61% of voters backed Trump in 2016, said she had been an independent most of her life but has voted Democratic the last 10 years. Blaker, who has cerebral palsy and is paralyzed on her right side, which impairs her speech, said she wants a candidate who will support programs that ensure she can remain living in affordable, accessible housing, and receive community care when she is older without going into a nursing home.
Blaker, an organizer for Southwest Pennsylvania ADAPT, a grassroots group that organizes demonstrations on behalf of people with disabilities, said Trump hasn’t addressed disability issues. She was particularly upset when the president mocked a New York Times reporter with a disability at a rally in 2015, and said she has been impressed with Biden’s efforts to frame the obstacles Americans with disabilities face as civil rights issues.
Jessica Keogh, an independent in West Chester, said she’s still undecided.
“I am really looking for a candidate to have a solid plan to support people with disabilities and empower them,” said Keogh, 32-year-old disability advocate with muscular dystrophy.
“I have voted for both sides," said Jay Harner, a short-term services supervisor at the Center for Independent Living of North Central Pennsylvania in Williamsport — a small town in Lycoming County, where Trump won 70% of the vote in 2016. “I’m not just some guy who puts on blue glasses and votes."
“Just because I have a disability, doesn’t mean I don’t have other issues I care about,” said Harner, who had considered himself an independent but has largely voted Democratic in recent years. “Just because someone says they’ll do something for people with disabilities doesn’t mean I’ll vote for you.”
Zachary Lewis in West Philadelphia, who’s also an organizer for Philly ADAPT, echoed that sentiment. A lifelong Democrat, disability issues are central to his vote. But he also wants candidates who will protect food stamps, welfare, and affordable housing — services that were a lifeline to his family while growing up.
But especially with health care on the line, Lewis and Harner said Biden is an easy choice.
Health insurance protections, employment, and community-based care services are among the most important issues to voters with disabilities, advocates and voters said. The Trump administration is currently asking the Supreme Court to strike down the Affordable Care Act, along with its protections for people with preexisting conditions.
“When it comes to preexisting medical conditions, it’s life or death," said Harner, who is paralyzed from the chest down.
Pennsylvania’s new universal mail voting system could increase turnout among the disabled community, but the coronavirus pandemic and longtime voting inaccessibility remain a threat.
In the 2018 midterms, voter turnout among people with disabilities surged by 8.5 percentage points, according to research by Rutgers professors Lisa Schur and Douglas Kruse. Voter registration among people with disabilities is nearly on par with registration among non-disabled voters. In Pennsylvania, turnout among people with disabilities declined by 0.8 percentage points in 2016 compared with 2012, the Rutgers research shows.
“We want to make sure that the people we work with are registered to vote, that they’re educated on the issues that impact them, and that it really becomes a national movement as a voter bloc,” said Tom Earle, chief executive of Liberty Resources, a Philadelphia nonprofit that promotes independent living for people with disabilities.