In the wake of the 2016 election, voters across America disappointed with the November 8th results mobilized to express their desire for progress. From social media pledges and petitions to large-scale movements like the record-breaking Women’s March on Washington, Americans found creative ways to express their opinions on a divisive election.
For more than a few citizens, the election mobilized them to push their civic participation to a new level: Running for office. Organizations devoted to supporting “average citizens” interested in running for office saw a spike in interest across the country. She Should Run, an organization and political incubator that offers nonpartisan training for women interested in running for office, saw 4,500 new sign-ups following the election.
There are a large number of programs across the country that provide support similar to, and often even further reaching than She Should Run. Many of these programs, such as the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Wellstone, offer training, advice, and sometimes even staff and campaign contributions to progressive leaders seeking public office, with a special focus on diverse or multiply marginalized demographics. Other programs have more of a demographic niche built in, with specific focuses on women, first- and second-generation Americans, LGBTQIA+, African Americans, and millennials.
Most of these groups fail to recognize the disability community in their diversity lists. There is no organization in existence devoted exclusively to helping disabled people run for office. There is a clear need to be filled either through education and inclusion of disability in these programs, or even better, a program designed specifically to helping disabled people seek public office.
It is rare to come across recognition of the disabled as a voting bloc with significant and unique political interests. However, a recent Pew Research profile found that the disability community is actually more politically active than nondisabled citizens. Politicians’ discussions on reform to social safety net programs, criminal justice, and health care have a massive impact on disabled Americans. We have unique interests in enacting policies that would, for example, end the subminimum wage or enable more citizens to live in their communities, as opposed to in nursing homes and institutions. However, many Americans and politicians think that disabled people are not capable of engaging in politics, and so disabled citizens are often left out.
There are successful disabled politicians already. Senator Tammy Duckworth, an Asian-American woman, wounded veteran, and wheelchair user, has been a strong proponent of disability rights and recently brought up the issue of disability rights when asked about President Trump’s nominee for Attorney General, Jeff Sessions. Congressman Jim Langevin, a wheelchair user, is also a large proponent of disability rights in Congress and personally recognizes disability as a complex and significant political issue.
A program specifically devoted to helping disabled citizens run for political office could help us navigate barriers that are significant for all people, and especially for the disability community. One of the main obstacles to running for office is financing. Running a campaign, no matter if it’s on the local, state, or Federal level, costs money. The intersection of disability and poverty is significant, with 34 percent of disabled Americans living below the poverty line in 2014. People with disabilities are less likely to have backgrounds or wealthy connections to bolster their popularity, recognition, and ability to run for office. Groups dedicated to providing campaign support to disabled Americans interested in running for office can make their goal financially feasible.
Additionally, creating an organization devoted to advancing the political interests of disabled Americans could provide a much-needed boost in recognition of disability issues. Although a number of organizations are dedicated to pursuing the legislative goals of the disability community, and although some movements like #CriptheVote have created a community and gained some recognition for their work, disability policy is still largely closed off. Despite the best efforts of activists, disability rights interests are still not well known by mainstream Americans. By encouraging disabled Americans to be politically active and by getting more disabled Americans into public office, an organization could be another step towards integrating disability rights into mainstream politics. And further, by showing that disabled Americans are interested in active in politics, it could help to break down the notion that the disability community is uninterested or incapable of being interested in politics.
There is a clear need to encourage disabled people to run for office. There is a clear need to provide the tools and training to enable our campaigns. By having more disabled people run for office, all Americans can witness the fact that disabled Americans are not helpless and passive citizens, but empowered, active participants in our democracy.