The growing list of presidential candidates has something in common beyond their Oval Office aspirations: None of them think disabled people should be able to access their websites.
On Tuesday, a day before the first Democratic debates, every presidential candidate (including the Republican one) was called out by the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired for having an inaccessible campaign site, just months after Politico put the candidates on blast for shoddy Spanish translation sites. Blind and low-vision users, along with disabled people who have certain other impairments like seizure disorders and cognitive disabilities — as well as those who are deaf and hard of hearing — can’t actually use the candidates’ websites. It’s just the first in a series of obstacles disabled communities face when trying to make informed voting decisions, even though these groups have an especially vested interest in politics.
Thirty-five million eligible voters are disabled, and disability turnout lags behind that of nondisabled voters by 6 percentage points; if disabled people voted at the same rate as their nondisabled counterparts, there would be 2.2 million more voters. One of the reasons is that voting is extra difficult for disabled people. Inaccessibility of polling places and election materials is a factor, as are voter suppression tactics — disabled people are less likely to have state identifications, for example, and get caught in voter ID laws.
Yet even though we show up to vote, many campaigns historically have failed to engage with our community. The 2020 candidates’ campaign sites highlight this issue. “Political campaigns have a long way to go to meaningfully engage with disabled voters when something so basic as a website poses a major barrier. Not a great look for any candidate talking about inequality, diversity, and inclusion,” notes Alice Wong, the founder and director of the Disability Visibility Project and one of the co-partners behind #CripTheVote.
When people think of website accessibility, they should consider blind and low-vision users first. Accessible websites have features like alternate text on images so people who can’t see them have context, high-contrast text, the ability to resize text as needed, and clearly labeled navigation elements. But sites should also have captioned and transcribed videos, and should be laid out thoughtfully for the benefit of people with cognitive impairments; website design should definitely not, for example, make visitors vomit, as happened to me with one campaign site’s strange animation effects. They should use clear, plain language for people with intellectual, cognitive, and developmental disabilities.
Virginia Jacko, CEO of Miami Lighthouse for the Blind, an organization that provides services to promote independence for blind and low-vision people of all ages, spearheaded the user testing for the 2020 candidates’ sites. The study was conducted by an entirely blind technical staff (Jacko is also blind).
Testers found significant errors that made it difficult or impossible to engage with the candidates’ websites. “I was surprised because not a single candidate — either the people who are going to be here for the debate or the Republican candidate — not a single one had an accessible website,” said Jacko. They argue that this is a violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act, though disability rights attorneys I spoke to note that the law behind the ADA and websites is complicated, and this may not be an argument provable in court.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, and former Rep. John Delaney had websites with the fewest errors, while Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, along with Mayor Pete Buttigieg, came in last in the assessment. Lighthouse for the Blind told me the Andrew Yang and Warren campaigns have both reached out to discuss design improvements since the study was released.
It’s a surprising outcome as Sanders, Warren, and Buttigieg have so far been best on disability issues. Sanders has the most robust set of policies of the candidates and just recently commemorated the 20th anniversary of Olmstead v. L.C., a key disability civil rights case involving two intellectually disabled women who sued for their right to live in the community and won. Similarly, Warren made a note of the anniversary on Twitter, while Buttigieg was the first candidate to hire an out disabled staffer, though neither has outlined official policies.
“All of the platitudes, mentions, or policy statements about disability issues by candidates ring hollow when potential disabled voters can’t even access their websites,” says Wong.
On any of the candidates’ websites, the Lighthouse for the Blind team couldn’t identify a single accessibility statement to provide a commitment to accessibility or information about how to request assistance. This is unlike, say, the NFL, which includes a detailed discussion of accessibility for visitors, though it lacks a contact phone number (Vox’s website also doesn’t have one).
“When you can’t access basic campaign information, you can’t make informed decisions. You’re being shut out of the voting process,” said Emily Ladau, editor-in-chief at the disability-focused publication Rooted in Rights and creator of the #InaccessibilityMeans hashtag.
During the 2016 election, the disability community often expressed frustration with candidates’ lack of engagement with its issues. “I want a candidate who genuinely respects the disability community,” Ladau commented.
But in 2020, some disability issues are coming to the fore, even if they aren’t being explicitly approached as such. Any conversation about Medicare-for-all (whatever flavor a candidate is promoting) ends up touching on disability, as disabled people are frequent and heavy users of the health care system. Sens. Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Kirsten Gillibrand have all joined Sanders’s Medicare-for-All Act, for example, while candidates like Beto O’Rourke and Buttigieg support a version that retains employer health insurance as an option, and Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Michael Bennet have stuck with more conservative buy-in approaches.
Opioids are a disability rights issue too, in how crackdowns might affect chronic pain patients or how to provide access to effective and supportive treatment for people with substance use disorders. Mental health — explicitly name-checked by several candidates including Delaney and Klobuchar as a priority — is another disability issue.
While nondisabled people may not think of it this way, immigration, transportation, reproductive rights, affordable housing, employment nondiscrimination, LGBTQ rights, racial injustice, and criminal justice reform are also disability issues. The disability community is disproportionately represented in marginalized groups — many of those seeking refuge at the border are disabled, with impairments like PTSD, depression, and anxiety caused by enduring trauma, along with acquired disabilities from living in war zones. Incarcerated people are much more likely to be disabled, and many of the black, Latinx, and indigenous people being shot and killed by police are also disabled.
The disability community has an outsize stake in the social issues many candidates are discussing in the debates, but those who want to read more about the candidates’ stances, or donate, may have trouble doing so on their websites.
“I don’t think anybody has ill intent,” said Jacko.
But it’s still a telling sign for disabled voters who are being told that their basic access to information about candidates simply doesn’t matter. Someone should come up with a plan for that.
Editor’s note: Joe Biden’s campaign also reached out to Lighthouse for the Blind about design improvements.
Writer s.e. smith is a Northern California-based journalist who has appeared in publications like the Guardian, Bitch Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, and Rewire.News, in addition to anthologies including The Feminist Utopia Project and (Don’t) Call Me Crazy.