Juan Munoz holds a sign at a recent REV UP Texas rally. (Helena Berger)
By Helena Berger
The seventh annual Disability Voting Rights Week is being celebrated throughout the United States this week. Across Virginia, organizations collaborating with REV UP Virginia — a non-partisan, statewide coalition of disabled individuals, disability organizations, and ally groups working collectively to increase the political power of disabled Virginians — are holding events to register people with disabilities and educate them about their voting options. As those options have expanded, so has the power of the disability vote.
We have come a long way in making voting accessible from 1990 when the Americans with Disabilities Act became law. All voters have benefited from more accessible polling places, more widespread use of mailed ballots, and more days of early voting. The U. S. Election Assistance Commission and Rutgers University recently released a study, Disability and Voter Turnout in the 2022 Elections; it showed for the first time there was no voting gap between disabled and non-disabled Virginian voters. Both voted at 53.2%. Our Disability Voting Rights Week events aim to increase that voter turnout.
In the Rutgers University report, “Projecting the Number of Eligible Voters with Disabilities in the November 2020 Elections,” 939,000 disabled Virginians were projected eligible to vote, approximately 15% of the total Virginia electorate. Their number did not take into account disabled individuals living in institutions — correctional facilities, nursing homes and psychiatric hospitals — which would have likely increased the eligibility number. This number will continue to grow as our population ages. Carolyn Caywood, a member of the Virginia Beach Mayor’s Committee for Persons with Disabilities shared her experience: “As I’ve aged, I’ve needed to take advantage of curbside voting, voting by mail, and early voting. And at a past DVRW event, I tried out the accessible voting machine that reads the ballot aloud to people who cannot read a print ballot.”
People with disabilities are just as diverse as other Virginians and have as many different political opinions. Still, government decisions can strongly impact people living with a disability, so it is critically important that they use the power of their vote. Mark Dixon, a self-advocate for The Arc of Virginia said, “It is important to vote because your vote is your voice in the American government. It is also important to know your elected officials so you can advocate for issues that affect your community, state, and your country.”
Candidates would be wise to consider that many of their supporters have disabilities or are caregivers and family members of Virginians with disabilities. The Disability and Voter Turnout in the 2022 Elections study revealed this plainly: “Among the 106.1 million voters without disabilities, 10.8 million lived in a household with a person with a disability. Combined with voters with disabilities, there were 26.5 million voters in disability households, equating to 22% of all voters.”
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Candidates can engage their constituents with disabilities by taking actions as simple as making sure their website is accessible for people who use screen readers. Acknowledging the power of the disability vote should also include meaningful and thoughtful engagement, such as meeting with members of the disability community and learning about their concerns.
Disability Voting Rights Week is sponsored by REV UP Virginia. Susan E. Lydick, co-founder and co-chair of REV UP Virginia, said she “believes that building the REV UP Virginia coalition is the most significant and impactful work we can do to empower disabled Virginians to coalesce and build power to effect consequential systemic, economic, and social change through strong political engagement.”
Joan Porte, President, League of Women Voters of Virginia, added, “The LWV of Virginia prizes our connection to REV UP Virginia. It is vitally important to assure that every eligible citizen has equitable and unhindered access to the polls despite their disabilities. In addition, the voices of disabled people must continue to be heard and honored by candidates and elected officials. We must never go back to the days when they were expected to remain in the shadows and voiceless.”
The coming election will set Virginia’s course on many contentious issues. All eligible Virginians need to use the power of their vote to shape our future. With over 15% of the Virginia electorate eligible disabled voters, and disabled and non-disabled Virginians voting at the same rate in the 2022 election, the power of the disability vote exists, keeps growing, and can influence the outcome of elections. And, when so many national, state, and local races are being decided by razor thin majorities, the time has come for all elected officials, and those running for office, to address the concerns of their disabled constituents and recognize the power of their vote. Through Disability Voting Rights Week, REV UP Virginia is working to ensure that no voters are left out because of a disability.
Helena Berger has been a disability-rights advocate for over 30 years and is the former President & CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD). AAPD is one of the nation’s leading cross-disability civil rights organizations advocating for the full recognition of rights for the over 60 million Americans with disabilities. Berger is also the co-founder and current co-chair of REV UP (Register! Educate! Vote! Use your Power!) Virginia.
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