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Candidates Focusing on Disability Issues, Key Voting Bloc

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America has 56 million people with disabilities, comprising the largest minority group in America, and the only one that, due to an accident or illness, anyone can join at any time.

Washington, Jan. 14 – Ahead of tonight’s Republican debate, the disability community is finally being heard and paid attention to by the presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle.

In a new ad released today, Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush highlights his fight for the rights of people with disabilities. Last week, Secretary Hillary Clinton became the first candidate to announce an Autism plan following a week of talking about related issues including mental health parity and Alzheimer’s research. Three candidates – Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Rick Santorum – have a section on their websites dedicated to disability rights.

In the past few weeks, nearly all of the candidates on both sides of the aisle have answered questions on low employment rates, high crime rates and lack of accessibility issues while campaigning in Iowa. In comparison, during the 2012 cycle, the word “disability” was very rarely even uttered.

America has 56 million people with disabilities, comprising the largest minority group in America, and the only one that, due to an accident or illness, anyone can join at any time.

“One in five Americans has a disability and the majority of voters have a loved one with a disability. In past elections, we have been ignored. During the 2016 campaign season, we will determine the outcome of the election,” said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of RespectAbilityUSA.org, a nonprofit disability opportunities organization.

In the most recent example, Bush’s ad features the former governor with several people with disabilities and their families, as well as his op-ed on the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Like fellow contender Gov. John Kasich’s ad last month, Bush calls out frontrunner Donald Trump for mocking a reporter with a disability.

“I have a 12-year-old son who has cerebral palsy,” a Bush supporter then says. “I told my wife I just couldn’t let that stand. I had to do something, make sure Donald Trump wasn’t the nominee for the Republican party.”

“When anybody disparages people with disabilities it sets me off,” Bush is quoted in the ad. “That’s why I called [Trump] a jerk. What kind of person would you want to have in the presidency that does that? At one point do we say enough of this? Let’s start solving problems.”

One problem is the alarming unemployment rate for people with disabilities. While most want to work, 70 percent of working-age Americans with disabilities are outside of the workforce. This leads to poverty and costs taxpayers billions of dollars in disability benefits.

More than 20 million of Americans with disabilities are working age.

“Issues of employment among people with disabilities can affect outcomes in competitive races,” Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, PhD, said in a statement following a bipartisan poll of 2014 voters. “This community is far bigger than many people realize, including people in my profession.”

Introducing policies that create opportunities for employing people with disabilities is not a conservative issue or liberal issue; it is a human issue, and it affects a large portion of the electorate in the United States. The top issue in the disability community is jobs. Government policies that help people with disabilities get and keep jobs are a win-win because they allow people with disabilities the dignity and financial benefits of work and also grow our economy and save taxpayer money.

More than 50 percent of Americans report having a family member or close friend with a disability. Fifty-two percent of Democrats report that they or a loved one have a disability, and for Republicans, a smaller number of 44 percent report they have a disability. Surprisingly, Independents have the largest number of voters who say they have a disability, with 58 percent saying yes. This shows that swing voters with disabilities and their families are up for grabs.

If nothing else, the bipartisan poll “shows that Americans with disabilities – and those who care deeply about them – are a demographic we need to pay attention to in the future,” Republican pollster Whit Ayres said in a statement.

The early primary states bear out that need.

  • Iowa: There are 357,730 Iowans with disabilities. Of that number, 169,300 Iowans with disabilities are of working age. Among this population there is a huge gap in terms of employment compared to their non-disabled peers. Only 44.8 percent are employed compared to 82.1 percent of those without disabilities living and working in the first primary state. There are 12,500 Iowans with disabilities between the ages of 16 and 20. Each year at least 3,125 young people with disabilities are aging out of school.
  • New Hampshire: In the Granite State, there are 166,258 people with a disability, of which 77,800 are of working age. Only 41.8 percent of these people are employed compared with 80.3 percent of working age people without disabilities. There are 5,900 New Hampshirites with disabilities between the ages of 16 and 20. Each year at least 1,475 of these young people with disabilities are transitioning out of school and entering the workforce.
  • South Carolina: 680,038 people have a disability. Only 30.7 percent of them are employed compared with the 72.7 percent of people without disabilities who are employed. Among those who have disabilities, 15,700 are young people between the ages of 16 and 20. Each year at least 3,925 young people with disabilities leave school and hope they will have a chance to enter the world of work.
  • Nevada: 357,035 people have disabilities.Of that number, 171,600 are working age. Only 39.2 percent are employed compared with 73.1 percent of people without disabilities in Nevada. Among Nevadans with disabilities, 8,200 are between the ages of 16 and 20. Each year at least 2,050 young people with disabilities are aging out of the school system.

Said Mizrahi, “In past elections we have seen the power of ‘soccer moms’ and Hispanics as key swing voters. This year it is America’s largest minority – and the one that anyone can join any time due to accident or illness – people with disabilities. Voters with disabilities, and the people who love and live with them, want candidates that care about opportunities and success for people of ALL abilities.”

Meet the Author

Lauren Appelbaum
Lauren Appelbaum

Lauren Appelbaum is the communications director of RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for people with disabilities, and managing editor of The RespectAbility Report, a publication at the intersection of disability and politics. Previously she was a digital researcher with the NBC News political unit. Appelbaum currently oversees RespectAbility’s outreach to Hollywood to stand up against ableism and other prejudice – while promoting positive, accurate, diverse and inclusive media portrayals on TV and in film. To reach her, email LaurenA@RespectAbility.org.

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