a blue and red frame with I Voted stickers in the image ahead of the U.S. elections
Over 38 million Americans with disabilities are eligible to vote this year. Photos courtesy: Unsplash

Special Needs

‘We Want to be Addressed Directly:’ Americans With Disabilities Reflect on the Elections

‘Every step you add makes voting harder.’

It’s been one of the most watched and contentious elections in American history as the country deals with a ravaging pandemic, growing unrest about racial justice and a polarizing presidency.

Over 38 million Americans with disabilities are eligible to vote this year, however with COVID-19 acting as an additional barrier, many Americans with disabilities have been unable to cast their ballot. The pandemic, coupled with lack of accessibility at polling booths and being unable to use mail-in ballots for those who are blind or have visual impairments, have been impediments for many.

We spoke to Haben Girma, an American disability rights lawyer and Harvard Law School’s first deafblind graduate, and Andrew Pulrang, one of the people behind #CripTheVote, a campaign to engage politicians to have a conversation and raise awareness about disability issues in the United States, about ensuring disabled people have access to the voting process and the discourse around disabilities in the elections.

Editor’s note: Our interviewees prefer identity-first language. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Did you vote? If so, what was your experience like? 

Andrew Pulrang: I voted by absentee ballot. New York didn’t send mail-in ballots to everyone, but they allowed anyone to ask for an absentee ballot for any reason. I mailed it weeks ago. For me and my particular disabilities, it was an extremely accessible process.

Haben Girma: There were no lines when I dropped off my ballot. Sadly, this is not the case for a lot of people.

Could you speak about some of the key challenges disabled people face when it comes to voting? Have there been any additional challenges due to COVID-19?

Pulrang: The barriers disabled people face in voting vary by their specific disabilities and their localities. In general, I would mention these main issues:

  • Inaccessible polling places,
  • Transportation barriers: limitations in getting to and from polling places, registration offices and ballot drop-off boxes,
  • Inaccessible formats: like how paperwork and ballots are presented,
  • Interpersonal barriers: unhelpful, disrespectful, or misinformed poll workers, discouragement or lack of support from friends and family,
  • Legal barriers: some disabled people under guardianship or other caretaking legal arrangements are categorically denied the right to vote without any specific justification.
A blue and red frame with a mail-in voting ballot envelope with blue and red masks

Many Americans who are blind or have visual impairments have been unable to fill out mail-in ballots.

Many people can’t complete mail-in ballots or have had trouble getting their vote registered; as a citizen of the United States, how does that make you feel when people can’t participate in a democratic right?

Pulrang: It makes me sad and angry, and also frustrated because it’s such a chronic and old problem, yet it seems so hard to address. There are a lot of essentially anti-democratic sentiments that are fairly popular, but aren’t seen as actual stances…more as some kind of common sense. But, they are anti-democratic and need to be clearly identified as such. For instance, I’m sure there are a lot of people who fundamentally believe that certain disabled people are just not qualified to vote, if not legally then in that sort of “common sense” way that is so much a part of ableism.

Girma: Voter suppression is infuriating.

How can we ensure disabled people are included in the electoral process?

Girma: Remove the access barriers.

Pulrang: Well, there is legal and policy work to do to make the structures of democracy stronger and more accessible. What #CripTheVote has done is work more on the demand side, helping disabled people be more personally engaged and informed in the electoral process as well as on social justice and policy making. The more disabled people want to participate, the more pressure there will be to make the process fair and accessible.

There has been much discourse about voter suppression, what parts of the population become targets of such policies and how does it affect their political representation?

Pulrang: I think it’s important to understand that voter suppression can be both intentionally planned, and a result arising from neglect. I think that a lot of it is intentional — an effort to reduce participation by certain groups perceived to vote a certain way such as black people and people of colour. I’m not sure whether there is much organized effort to hold down disabled people’s voting rates.

“Remove the access barriers.”

But the disabled vote is suppressed as an effect of the generally restrictive and bureaucratic nature of the whole process. Every step you add to the process, every paper you have to fill out, the deadline you have to meet, the distance you have to travel makes voting harder specifically for people with disabilities.

What are some topics you wish the U.S. presidential candidates would focus on when it comes to disabled people? 

Girma: Employment discrimination.

Pulrang: All issues are disability issues. That said, some candidates this year have done a pretty good job of addressing disability issues, such as:

One of the encouraging aspects of the 2020 campaign overall is the unprecedented amount of work candidates have done on disability issues. Here’s a link to a collection of links to candidate policies.

What are some key things that need to change in the discourse around disabilities in the U.S. elections?

Girma: We need more conversations about disability and ableism.

Pulrang: “Disabled” means more than just children in special education and young adults in wheelchairs. It includes parents and grandparents with age-related disabilities, autistic people, people with mental illness, learning disabled people, and people with chronic pain or chronic illness. And all of all ages. So it’s not a tiny specialized constituency.

Disabled people appreciate being included.”

That said, not all of us consider ourselves as part of any kind of disabled voting bloc. While none of us needs to define ourselves completely and solely as “disabled” for all purposes, it would help if more of us could see the many unique policy issues and perspectives we share.

Disabled people appreciate being included, but how we are included counts. We want to be addressed directly, not just discussed like we aren’t really here. We want our own voices heard, not just our advocates and proxies. Disabled people need to be included at all levels of campaigns and elected official staff.

Also read: Special Olympics’ Tim Shriver on How COVID-19 Is Impacting People With Special Needs


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‘We Want to be Addressed Directly:’ Americans With Disabilities Reflect on the Elections