Communities invested in reducing barriers to civic participation for all members of their community should begin that work by examining the experiences of people with disabilities. Experiences with disability cut across, and are amplified by, other experiences of social identity, such as race or ethnicity, religion, age, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, or gender presentation, and may be temporary or permanent. Given that 26% of the American adult population identifies as having some type of disability1, people with disabilities are certainly members of every community. They play a valuable role as engaged members of their communities and centering their experience is important to improving the overall civic health of our communities. To do this, it is necessary to understand how people with disabilities experience barriers to civic participation, learn how to ameliorate them, and discover promising practices from invested communities.
Researchers from Lurie Institute for Disability Policy, including researchers with disabilities, conducted interviews and surveys with 712 Americans with disabilities about their perceptions and experiences around civic engagement and the rights and advocacy of people with disabilities; this study sought to be inclusive and oversampled people identifying as LGBTQIA, people of color, people living in institutions, and people with intermittent or low internet access. In a report entitled, “Civic Engagement and People with Disabilities: A Way Forward through Cross-Movement Building,”2 researchers found that:
- 57% of respondents reported experiencing barriers to civic engagement
- More than 20% of respondents identified inaccessibility as a barrier to civic engagement
- 65% of respondents strongly agreed that it is important to have leaders in government who identify as having disabilities
- 34% of respondents indicated that “othering” as it pertains to another aspect of their social identity made them feel unwelcome or invisible in civic engagement spaces
Study participants were quoted as experiencing participating in American democracy as “fragmented, inaccessible, and ableist,” with one participant stating, “As a disabled person, I face stereotypes and bigotry about people with disabilities. My credibility is always in question. No one presumes my competence.” This quote, and the larger study results, underscore how important a focus on community behavioral change is to improve experiences of civic engagement for people with disabilities. Other challenges highlighted in the report include:
- People with disabilities are often not included in “mainstream” civic engagement practices and are often patronized or dismissed
- The rights of people with disabilities are often treated as “disability issues” and are not integrated into discussions about the rights of people
- People without disabilities often view the disability community as homogeneous and single-issue focused
- Civic engagement practices often include a minimum standard designed to ensure compliance with state and federal laws without input from people with disabilities
In addition to this national study, the National Civic League worked with the City of Denver’s Division of Disability Rights to gather feedback from community members who have a disability, their caregivers and advocates, on their experiences of obstacles and barriers to using City of Denver-owned facilities. A total of 377 responses were gathered from a broad cross-section of the community. Some of the highlights of the input gathered through this process include:
- While there was a great deal of input on accessibility of city-owned facilities, concerns about sidewalks and other transportation issues dominated many conversations.
- Programmatic issues also were a high priority for many responders, including the need for sensitivity training for staff and adaptive programs to be offered at more locations.
- Another frequent non-facility recommendation was for communications to be more accessible to a wider range of individuals and increased public education on accessibility matters.
- Parks and recreation centers received some of the most feedback, due to the volume of usage, with requests for improvements to these facilities and better maintenance overall.
- Government buildings like the City/County building, Denver Human Services, and the Courthouse received a lot of feedback and recommendations on how to improve access in these spaces.
- Some major requests for facility improvements, included: providing more accessible parking, increased signage, and better ADA compliance with entrances, push buttons, and restrooms.
Ameliorating Barriers and Promising Practices
Based on the above experience and principles, here are a few considerations for communities seeking to foster inclusive democracy and greater accessibility for all members of their community:
- Elevate the stories and experiences of people with disabilities that highlight their civic contributions to the community
- Support cross-movement and allyship between other offices and organizations that focus on issues of social equity and civic engagement
- Foster access and presume the interest of people with disabilities in serving in public office or on committees or commissions
While the data and shared experiences suggest we have a way to go in ensuring an inclusive experience of democracy, communities across the U.S. are developing promising practices. For example, in Durham, North Carolina, the city has moved beyond the minimum requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act and established the Mayor’s Committee for Persons with Disabilities. This committee serves as an educational and advocacy group, with the major goals of promoting public awareness and breaking down existing barriers to people with disabilities as it relates to their experiences of housing, education, recreation, transportation, and employment. The Mayor’s Committee for Persons with Disabilities exemplifies many best disability engagement practices, including their allyship and efforts to integrate their work with other organizations, and their convening of a regular forum to give people with disabilities the opportunity to provide feedback to community leaders.
As many states continue to pursue new laws designed to secure state and local elections, the experiences of voters with disabilities should remain centered in these deliberations as people with disabilities still encounter physical, perception, and technological barriers in accessing their right to vote. These include but are not limited to a lack of automatic door openers, an absence of American Sign Language interpreters, a lack of Braille signs and ramps, narrow doorways, and inaccessible voting machines. Voters with intellectual disabilities are also unfairly subject to inappropriate competency screenings and prohibited from voting. In West Virginia, the American Council for the Blind, the Mountain State Council of the Blind, and voting rights advocates lobbied for a more accessible method of voting for blind voters. Prior to 2020, even though military members and overseas citizens had the ability to vote electronically, there was no accessible method to vote via a remote absentee ballot for people with disabilities. In early 2020, the West Virginia legislature passed Senate Bill 94, amending state legislation to allow for accessible absentee voting practices for individuals with disabilities. Advocates for people with disabilities in other states such as New York and Colorado are also seeking to further enshrine voting accessibility into their state laws.
The National Civic League and advocates for people with disabilities across the United States believe that the health of our democracy depends upon all members of our community being able to access, and be fully welcomed in, civic engagement spaces. In doing so, we recognize the access and opportunity of people with disabilities in these spaces as not just a concern for disability rights but as central to our mission of civic engagement and as a concern for us all.