The Black Disabled: Facing and overcoming voting hurdles
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Most are very familiar with the constant roadblocks and voter suppression tactics employed to limit and discourage the Black vote. But for one segment of the Black community, those voting obstacles are compounded exponentially. I’m talking about Blacks with disabilities, or as some members of this community prefer to be called, the “uniquely abled.”

In addressing voting and the general disabled U.S. population of over 38 million eligible voters, Gary Lynn, vice chair of Texas Democrats with Disabilities, listed several issues.

“For those who would like vote in-person, I would say the biggest barrier is getting to the polls themselves; accessible transportation, especially for those living in rural counties,” said Lynn.

Lynn also mentioned the lack of physical supports, including lack of protection from the elements (heat or rain) and the challenge of standing in line for disabled persons lacking the stamina to do so.

Lynn mentioned a third challenge, most who are not disabled, rarely recognize as a barrier.

“Once you get to the polls, some people have language barriers. They don’t always understand how to work the voting machine or maybe they can’t work the voting machine because they don’t have a lot of arm or hand use.”

But for “uniquely abled” Blacks, the going gets even tougher.

In a Nov. 2021 letter from the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) highlighting a report by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) which is the U.S. Department of Commerce, the AAPD urged NIST to address the importance of the compounding voting access barriers facing disabled people of color. The AAPD’s letter stated the NIST’s report “describes additional barriers facing people with disabilities, but does not address how people of color with disabilities face compounding barriers at the polls.”

“Understanding the way that race interacts with disability when it comes to access barriers is essential to creating comprehensive solutions,” said the AAPD letter.

Rutgers University researchers found that Black disabled voters waited in line to vote for twice as long as white disabled voters, and noted that racial discrimination worsens voter access barriers.

AAPD charged that state legislators often chose to close many polling places described as lacking ADA compliance rather than working to resolve access barriers. And the lion’s share of those polling places were located in heavily Black and Latinx-populated communities, thus creating a voter suppression trifecta: reducing access to people of color, people with disabilities, and disabled people of color.

And closed polling places lead to longer lines and longer distances to travel to the nearest polling place for voters of color, which is a double whammy for Black disabled who often have limited access to reliable and accessible transportation. Moreover, the digital divide means “uniquely abled” Blacks encounter more problems than others when seeking register to vote online, learn about the candidates and the issues and/or vote remotely due to less access to reliable broadband internet, as well as devices to connect to the internet.

Karl Hearne

One of Houston’s “uniquely abled” Blacks is Karl Hearne, regional communications coordinator for Phi Beta Sigma fraternity, the frat’s University of Houston on-campus advisor and associate minister of the Christian Hope Church in Third Ward.

Hearne is also a longtime voter who has seen long voting lines and other voter suppression efforts discourage fellow “uniquely abled” voters from casting their ballots. Hearnes believes, however, the larger Houston community can support disabled voters.

“Go to where the uniquely abled are. If you see us in the community, go to where we are. If you see that there’s a need maybe for transportation or general voter education, take it upon yourselves to provide those opportunities and provide those things to give advice and educate folks on one, where can they vote and more,” said Hearne.

EVENTS

And though the 2022 Disability Vote Summit (June 29-30, 2022) has passed, there are plenty of other events happening this fall to energize and organized disabled voters and their family members and supporters.

The annual National Disability Voter Registration Week, which is always the third week in September, this year falls on Sept 12 – 16, 2022 (https://www.aapd.com/advocacy/voting/dvrw/).

The Texas Disability Issues Forum (TDIF) will be held on Monday, Sept 19, 2022 in Austin, prior to the midterm elections, to find out what major party candidates have to say on the most pressing issues, from healthcare to elections to education, and more.

TDIF is a nonpartisan, one-day event, where candidates for elected statewide office address concerns of Texans with disabilities. We invite both Democrat and Republican candidates for the offices of Governor, Lt. Governor, Attorney General and Agriculture Commissioner.

The event is not a debate, but rather a series of one-on-one candidate interviews, conducted by an impartial moderator. Of all the candidates (Democrat and Republican) invited, only Beto O’Rourke, candidate for governor of Texas, has confirmed his participation.

“There are over 35 million people with disabilities who are eligible to vote in the U.S.,” said AAPD’s Zach Wilson in his article “REV UP for National Disability Voter Registration Week.”

Wilson said that 35-plus million voter number increases to over 62 million when we include family members of the disabled in the same household, according to a report out of Rutgers University.

“The number of ‘disability voter’” continues to grow when we consider the ripple effect of the disability vote that connects families, friends, advocates, educators, providers and other individuals that interact with people with disabilities. There is incredible potential for the disability community to bring disability issues to the forefront of elections and to hold elected officials accountable for policies and decisions that affect people with disabilities,” added Wilson.

To make this happen, Dr. Kenya Minott, strategist, coach and co-owner of Full-Circle Strategies, says there’s work to be done, and by many different individuals and entities.

“To help ensure more participation among Black voters who might have disabilities or literacy challenges, local government and grassroots organizations (including faith-based groups) must directly provide support at polling places, clear and concise messaging to these populations about how to participate and when, and remove any physical barriers that may otherwise prevent a person from being able to vote,” said Minott. “We cannot just assume that people who are motivated to vote will be able to maneuver these processes without support.”

STATS

  • The percentage of Americans living with disabilities is 56%
  • Texas has the second largest number of individuals with disabilities of all the states.
  • When it comes to services offered to Texans with disabilities, Texas ranks 50th.
  • The percentage of individuals with disabilities relative to the entire Texas population is 11.8%. (Texas Workforce Investment Council 2019 Report)

ORGANIZATIONS

POLITICAL ISSUES OF THE DISABLED

  • Disability Integration Act is a civil rights, bipartisan and bicameral legislation, to address the fundamental issue that people who need Long Term Services and Supports (LTSS) are forced into institutions and losing their basic civil rights. The legislation builds on the 25 years of work done to end the institutional bias and provide seniors and people with disabilities home and community-based services (HCBS) as an alternative to institutionalization. It is the next step in our national advocacy after securing the Community First Choice (CFC) option.
  • Assistive Technology is any product, equipment and/or systems that enhance learning, working and daily living for persons with disabilities.
  • John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, according to the Brennan Center and others, is a bill that would modernize and revitalize the Voting Rights Act of 1965, strengthening legal protections against discriminatory voting policies and practices.
  • AAPD’s Principle 3, Equal Rights and Political Participation: Discrimination against people with disabilities that produces barriers to community integration, independent living, equal opportunity, economic self-sufficiency, and political and civic participation must be eliminated. Strong civil rights laws and enforcement of those laws are essential to ending discrimination. To this end, the AAPD will 1) advocate for strong enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and other laws that guarantee the rights and full participation of people with disabilities and for improvements in those laws when necessary; and 2) advocate for policies that allow people with disabilities to fully participate in the political process, including ensuring the accessibility of polling locations and through promoting the availability of accessible voting technology.
  • All Issues: Groups advocating for increased voting rights for the disabled argue that as human beings and as U.S. citizens, all issues are disabled issues, be they access to healthcare, education, immigration, etc.