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How Candidates & Campaigns Can Connect with Voters with Disabilities: by Nelly Nieblas and Hon. Steve Bartlett

Three RespectAbility team members holding up signs that say "Earn My Vote".Washington, D.C., June 28 – In the 2020 election cycle, candidates from both political parties who made their campaigns accessible and inclusive of people with disabilities won key races and helped shift the balance of power in America.

The biggest wins for candidates who reached out to voters with disabilities were in the state of Georgia where President Biden and Senators Ossoff and Warnock all made their campaigns accessible to voters with disabilities.

According to the 2019 Annual Disability Statistics Compendium, the total number of Georgians with disabilities is 1,246,077. This is well beyond the margin of victory for any candidate. Indeed, since 328,000 people in Georgia are either deaf or hard of hearing, the fact that the Democratic candidates put captions on their videos and used American Sign Language (ASL) in multiple events and videos, made a very significant difference. So too did the fact that Democratic candidates made their websites accessible to the 250,000+ people who are blind or who have low vision in Georgia. Each of those candidates also answered disability candidate questionnaires on key issues. Republican candidates in Georgia were repeatedly asked to do the same but did not prioritize voters with disabilities – to the detriments of their campaigns.

In a Senate pickup for the Democratic party, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper won a hotly contested race for the Colorado Senate seat, beating Republican incumbent Sen. Cory Gardner. Meanwhile, incumbent Republican Sen. Steve Daines did reach out to voters with disabilities and thus continues to represent Montana in the U.S. Senate, as he defeated Democratic challenger Gov. Steve Bullock. In Maine, incumbent Republican Sen. Susan Collins won a hotly contested race and thus continues serving in the U.S. Senate, beating Democratic challenger Sara Gideon. And in North Carolina, incumbent Republican Sen. Thom Tillis defeated Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham and this is now serving another term in the U.S. Senate.

Additionally, three incumbent Governors who showed their support of people with disabilities by completing the RespectAbility candidate questionnaire won re-election. Democratic incumbent Roy Cooper won a second term as Governor of North Carolina, beating Republican challenger Dan Forest. Democratic incumbent John Carney won a second term as Delaware’s Governor, beating Republican challenger Julianne Murray. Republican incumbent Eric Holcomb was re-elected as Governor of Indiana, beating Democratic challenger Dr. Woodrow Myers.

As political campaigns seek to connect to every voter, it is important to include voters with disabilities. RespectAbility is nonpartisan and is eager to help any campaign be accessible to, and inclusive of, people with disabilities. To get started, here are some important tips on how candidates and campaigns can connect to voters with disabilities:

1) Start right away on building connections to people with disabilities and disability groups in the same way that you do with other groups of constituents.

According to the US census, America has 56 million people with disabilities, more than 20 million of whom are working age. Polls show that most voters either have a disability or a loved one with a disability. The extended disability community — when you include family members, those with close friends with disabilities and those who work on behalf of or volunteer for a disability cause — is 63 percent of Americans. RespectAbility has done multiple polls that show what voters with disabilities want. We want to be included in all policies that impact our lives and we are ready to be your partners in success.

2) Ensure all virtual events and communications are accessible to all.

Accessibility should always be considered before, during and after the event. This is because:

  • Twenty percent of adults in the U.S. are Deaf/Hard of Hearing; that is 48 million Americans.
  • More than 1 million people in the U.S. are blind and more than 12 million have low vision.
  • More than 5 million people in the U.S. are English language learners and they can benefit from captioning.
  • It is likely that more than 40 million Americans have a learning disability.

A new toolkit by the national disability advocacy nonprofit RespectAbility includes steps to take before, during and after an event to ensure it is as accessible as possible for all people. Many of the tips do not cost any money to implement. For example, Zoom supports free, automatic closed captioning for webinars and meetings. View the toolkit online. The good news is that it is easy and inexpensive to make events accessible to everyone if you know how.

3) Include people with disabilities, who are experts in disability issues, as staff members, including senior staff and on constituent committees.

“Nothing without us” is more than a slogan in the disability community. People with disabilities have a lot to bring to the table. True, they might need accommodations to get to the table in the first place. But most accommodations are free or cost less than $500. Ensure that constituents are aware that you are willing to make accommodations so they can participate, just like anyone else.

The most important thing to do is to treat any person with a disability with the same respect and high expectations you would treat any other person. Schedule events and job interviews at an accessible location and keep transportation in mind. Use vendors who are or who hire people with disabilities.

We also encourage you to include information on disability rights/issues on your website, as well as to include people with disabilities in your videos and photo-ops in an inclusive way. The photographs and stories you share, events you advertise, and language you use in your mission statement, “about us” and other sections should reflect that individuals with disabilities are welcomed, valued and included.

Learn more about etiquette on interacting with people with disabilities.

4) Put out an honest statement that says you want people with disabilities to be fully included in society, just like all other people.

Talk about how you will create new job opportunities for people with disabilities. When you are asked about disability issues and default to talking about benefits or only healthcare, it insults our desire to work and fully participate in our communities. Yes, a safety net is very important. However, studies show that most working age people with disabilities can and want to work. If you have ever hired people with disabilities or done something to enable people with disabilities to have a better future, talk about it!

Many organizations including Best Buddies, National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities (NACDD), National Council on Independent Living (NCIL), Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA), National Organization on Disability (NOD) and RespectAbility have concrete policy recommendations on how to lead on this issue.

RespectAbility has done a report, Poll-Driven Messaging to Achieve Positive Change for People with Disabilities, which your campaign team and pollster should read. Proven messaging that reflects what people with and without disabilities want to hear:

  • Our communities are at their best when all people, including people with disabilities, have the opportunity to get skills, jobs and succeed.
  • People with disabilities bring unique characteristics and talents to workplaces that benefit employers and organizations. Stephen Hawking was a genius who happened to use a wheelchair. People with disabilities can work in hospitals, hotels and excel in computer programming, software development and in many other areas of information technology and other fields.
  • Companies including JPMorgan Chase, Starbucks, Bank of America, and Coca-Cola have shown that employees with disabilities are loyal, successful and help them become more profitable. If we find the right people for the right jobs it can increase the bottom line of all sorts of companies.
  • 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. Those same policies also grow our economy and save taxpayer money.

When you put out a statement or disability policy paper, share it with EricA@RespectAbility.org so RespectAbility can ensure that the disability community sees and hears it.

5) Build a more inclusive environment by learning and using respectful language.

Some people with disabilities prefer “person-first” language, like “person with a disability.” Others prefer “identity-first” language, like “disabled person.” Ask the person what language they prefer and go with their preference.

There are members of certain disability groups in the U.S. who prefer identity-first language, such as the American Deaf community, Blind people and a number of Autistic people/Autistics. Their reasoning is that they consider their disabilities to be inseparable parts of who they are. Using person-first language, some also argue, makes the disability into something negative, which can and should be separated from the person.

Think about other language that you use. For example, instead of describing someone as “wheelchair bound,” describe him as a “person who uses a wheelchair.” Don’t use words like “stupid” or “retarded” to mean incompetent. There are many resources on appropriate communication that can be helpful to you and your staff.

6) Ensure your social media and website are accessible to people with hearing and vision differences.

People with disabilities use the Internet, so websites need to be set up for use by screen readers and people who need captions. Ensure that millions of people who use screen readers can access your website. By making your website fully accessible for those who have either visual or auditory disabilities, you will be able to reach millions of additional voters. Has a person who is blind and who uses adaptive computer technology checked your website for accessibility?

In order to do so, all online videos and audio files should include captions. Video hosting sites such as YouTube and Vimeo have free tools that allow users to add automated subtitles to their clips, but this is not as reliable. Auto captioning, which is great technology, is not always perfect. We would strongly recommend ensuring the accuracy of the captions. Making a transcript of the video available online is also an incredibly helpful resource for users who have auditory disabilities, like Deafness or Hard of Hearing.

Add textual descriptions, often called “alternative text,” to charts, graphs, images and maps so that they are discernible by assistive technology. Add audio description for materials presented visually. Ensure your website includes a site index. Conduct usability studies for your highest traffic URLs for both your external and internal websites to verify that your websites work effectively with screen reading and other assistive technology. Many of these things also increase your Search Engine Optimization, increasing your reach. Watch RespectAbility’s webinar on web accessibility.

Also have a plan in place to ensure that social media postings (FacebookTwitter and Instagram feeds) are accessible, including blog posts and newsletters.

7) For in-person events, ensure that locations and materials are accessible.

Ensure that all your events are held in accessible locations and that accommodations (i.e. ASL interpreters) are provided when requested. The following sample event checklist will assist you in ensuring accessibility at your events.

Invitation/Notification of Event

  • Does the invitation clearly indicate that people with disabilities are welcome?
  • Do appropriate icons appear (e.g., physical access, sign language interpreter available)?
  • Is the writing clear, in an easily legible font and size?
  • Is the information embedded in an email as well as an attachment?
  • Do the visual images depict inclusion, e.g., people with disabilities?
  • Have you included a contact name and number for inquiries regarding accommodations?
  • Is the notification of the event on your website as well as in hard copy?

Facilities

  • Is the facility accessible – for wheelchairs, walkers and scooters?
  • If the event is standing-room only, is there a section for wheelchair users and those who needs to sit? Is that section in a place where these seated individuals can see any speakers?
  • Are the bathrooms accessible? Are there designated information/ rest areas available?
  • Is there accessible parking?
  • If transportation is being provided, is it accessible?
  • Is the lighting appropriate for people with visual impairments?

Communication

  • Will there be a sign language interpreter?
  • If there are videos, will there be subtitles?
  • Will there be assistive listening devices?
  • Have you made sure that signers, etc. will be visible to those in wheelchairs?
  • Is the website where the event is posted accessible?
  • Is the event available as a webcast?

Staff/Volunteers

  • Have you arranged for volunteers?
  • Have they received orientation/sensitization and training to respond to inquiries?

At an event, provide handouts in an electronic version during meetings and presentations for individuals who need or want to use technology to access and manipulate the materials. Provide individuals with transcripts for purely audio files that do not have a visual component.

8) Make sure that people KNOW that your events are accessible, so they will come!

Planning on having access and space for wheelchairs, captioned and audio described videos, sign-language interpreters and communication access real-time translation (CART)? Share this information in your event announcement!

Explicitly communicate your desire to include individuals with disabilities. In your event RSVP form, ask participants if they need an accommodation; be sure to put a note at the bottom that you’ll fulfill requests as long as you receive them at least 48 hours prior to the event if it is a small event. All large events should automatically be accessible for wheelchair users, have captions and sign language interpreters.

Sample inclusion language to use for accommodations: Accommodation requests should be directed to __________ at 222-222-222 no later than _____________. (name) (deadline if appropriate). Additional language may be added to state that requests for accommodations made after the advertised date will be honored to the maximum extent feasible.

9) People with disabilities cut across every demographic – gender, age, race, sexual orientation, etc., so it is important to think about intersectionality as well.

Intersectionality is a sociological theory of how different types of discrimination interact. It describes multiple threats of discrimination when an individual’s identities overlap with a number of minority classes, such as race, gender, age, ethnicity, disability and other characteristics. Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw coined the term in her 1989 essay “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.”

People of color and English as Second Language Learners with disabilities have unique barriers and are less likely to receive the disability diagnosis and early intervention they needed as a child, leading to the school-to-prison pipeline. People who live with multiple minority status are more at risk for school suspensions, dropping out of school, homelessness, addiction, incarceration, abuse and other issues. Issues such as immigration, the school-to-prison pipeline, trafficking and foster care all have both race and disability angles. Ensure that people with disabilities are on panels and programs, especially those on education, poverty, healthcare, employment and social justice.

Have a question on any of these guidelines? Contact Eric Ascher at RespectAbility for help on any of these issues: EricA@RespectAbility.org.

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Nelly Nieblas
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