When Victor Pineda arrived at his polling station, a fraternity house, back in 2008, instead of waiting in line like everyone else and easily casting his vote, he was asked to wait outside.
Pineda, who uses a wheelchair, was unable to enter the building, so poll workers had to move the machine outdoors and he had to cast his ballot on the sidewalk, forgoing his right to a private vote.
Although he did end up voting, the experience made him feel like an afterthought in the democratic process. “I voted, but it did not make me feel like I was voting privately, nor with dignity, when I was trying to express myself like everybody else,” said Pineda, who is now a senior research fellow at the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society.
During this election cycle, the media has analyzed almost every identity group, asking women, Latinos, and millennials three words: Will you vote? But for many people with disabilities, the question is not will they vote but can they.
While people with disabilities represent one in six eligible voters, exercising their right to vote is a challenge because of persistent physical barriers, which actually drive low turnout. According to a 2013 study by Rutgers University associate professor Lisa Schur, 1.5 million more voters with disabilities would head to the polls if the barriers they faced that make voting difficult were dealt with or eliminated.
According to the same research, a third of voters with a disability said they experienced some trouble voting in the 2012 election. And almost half (46 percent) of polling places examined had accessible voting systems that wouldn’t be easily navigable by some voters with a disability.
Almost every voter with a disability that I spoke to at the Disability Network conference in Pasadena in June had their own embarrassing voting story. Among the most common were problems ranging from difficulty reading the ballot to lack of training for poll workers to an absence of ramps to make polling places accessible.
Voting by mail could be seen as a fix-all solution, but it doesn’t address one of the biggest problems facing the community: invisibility. “For me, it was important that they saw me,” said Lillibeth Navarro, the executive director of Communities Actively Living Independent and Free. “It’s really important that people with disabilities come out.”
Of course, the voting system being ill-prepared for people with disabilities is a larger metaphor for a political system that fails to prioritize the needs of disabled Americans. “Our issues don’t get heard as much. You don’t hear presidential candidates speaking about people with a disability as much as they should,” said Jose Pena, who helps Get Out the Vote register people with disabilities. Sometimes we are thrown on the back burner when our issues should be front and center.”
Our media has been a culprit too. For instance, when Hillary Clinton made a push to appeal to voters with disabilities, the Washington Post labeled the effort “unusual” despite these voters representing nearly 20 percent of the American population. Most people know or are related to a person living with a disability, so to label this population as “niche” is what should be unusual.
And it’s not just physical barriers that prevent people with disabilities from exercising their right to vote. The push to institute voter ID laws adds barriers for people with disabilities, since many don’t have drivers’ licenses, nor do they have state IDs because the process for obtaining one is typically, well, inaccessible.
With voter ID laws and two candidates who couldn’t have more polarized approaches to disability, the stakes are high for people living with disabilities in this election. Democrats promoted unprecedented visibility of people with disabilities at their convention. Meanwhile, the Republican nominee, Donald Trump, mocked New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski’s disability.
But it’s not like disability has been an area for partisanship in the past. In fact, in 2013, the nonprofit United Cerebral Palsy found that 30 percent of disabled likely voters surveyed identified as Democrats, 23 percent as Republicans, and 30 percent as independents.
During a pivotal election where both candidates have such contrasting positions on people with disabilities, it seems like the right time to ensure they get a say in who gets the keys to the White House.