The Americans With Disabilities Act and Elections: Disabled Voters Are Still Disenfranchised

Disability (In)Justice is a package exploring where the fight for disability justice stands.
Hand writing Crip the vote
Ananya Rao-Middleton

The midterm elections are fast approaching. As people research their preferred candidates and mark key dates in the election cycle on the calendar, there is a group of people who often need to do extra research and due diligence to ensure their votes are received: the disabled. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 61 million adults in the United States have disabilities, including conditions that limit mobility or impair cognition. Others live with deafness or are hard of hearing, are blind or have limited or low vision. Many conditions, such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and various neuromuscular conditions, can be multiply disabling. Thanks to the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), disabled Americans are supposed to have equal access to the ballot box. But it wasn’t always this way.

The ADA was signed into law by former president George H.W. Bush in 1990. The main tenets were to increase accessibility, address discriminatory policies and practices, and ensure equal access to employment and housing opportunities for disabled people. Specific applications include ensuring that city streets have curb cuts that allow for wheelchairs; chirping tones to enable blind people to know when it's safe to cross the street; ensuring that elevators, ATMs, and other public access controls feature information in Braille for blind patrons; and allowing service dogs entry to establishments. Businesses must offer disabled candidates reasonable accommodations and cannot discriminate against otherwise qualified candidates because they have disabilities.

After allegations of fraud emerged in the 2000 election, the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) was passed to simplify voting procedures and work in accordance with the ADA. Some measures also expanded physical access to polling sites for disabled voters. One great example of this is the jurisdictions that allow disabled people to call an access phone number that has poll workers bring ballots to their cars and allows curbside voting.

These reforms represent huge strides in access. But more than three decades after the passage of the ADA, too many disabled people remain disenfranchised. My informal survey of fellow members of the disabled community and disability rights advocates has turned up many disappointing stories. I've heard about inaccessible venues, improperly trained staff, and other undue barriers. I've spoken with multiple people whose polling places have stairs and no ramps.

Lydia Nunez, a disability rights activist who lives in Texas, reports that she had to go to multiple locations to vote in recent elections. At the second location, she recalls being dismayed to find there was no privacy partition at the accessible voting booth. She felt the attendant at the machine did not give her adequate time to make her selections, asking repeatedly if she needed help when Nunez was just taking her time to read the amendment questions; the hovering attendant also made it so she didn’t have the same privacy afforded to other voters, she says. 

In Texas, disabled people can be accompanied to the polls by personal attendants, who are now required to fill out paperwork and sign an oath. In the past, attendants just had to provide their name and address. But after the passage and implementation of Texas's state law SB1, attendants must provide their name, address, and relationship to the disabled voter, and swear under penalty of perjury that they have not been compensated for their time and have not pressured or coerced a voter.

As Sarah Kim reported in Teen Vogue in 2016, the #cripthevote movement was founded to address accessibility concerns crucial to disabled voters. (Many disabled people choose to self-identify as a “crip,” short for crippled, because taking the word back from being used as a pejorative can be empowering.)

Helmed by co-partners Alice Wong of the Disability Visibility Project, Gregg Beratan of cripthevote.blogspot.com, and Andrew Pulrang of disabilitythinking.com in 2016, #cripthevote focuses on ensuring truly accessible polling places. Some important goals championed by these activists include: ensuring access to affordable medications that improve quality of life; gaining support from lawmakers to provide coverage for essential care; providing direct-support professionals a living wage; and supporting the Our Home Not Nursing Homes movement to keep disabled people out of institutions.

I ask the co-partners for their thoughts on how the movement is going now, six years on. Pulrang responds, “It feels like the issues facing the disability community now are 10 times as complex and important as what we were dealing with in 2016. I think timely coverage of the ongoing battles over voting access is exactly the kind of issue that’s become exponentially [more] important." He adds, "We need the people working on voter access to continue keeping the #cripthevote community informed.” 

In 2020, voting access improved during the pandemic because mail, absentee, and early voting options were expanded, giving disabled voters more flexibility and methods of casting a ballot. But in the wake of that largely successful election — which had record turnout, even though it took place in the middle of a dangerous pandemic — state lawmakers have taken steps to crack down on voting access. Republican-led directives, which many see as aimed at suppressing the votes of people of color, the disabled, and other marginalized communities, have passed all over the country. The ACLU reported in 2021 that in the previous several years, more than 400 voter suppression and anti-voter bills have been introduced.

With midterms on the horizon, I ask Pulrang, where should disability communities’ focus be in the months to come? “Voting access is critical,” he says. “I think the dual goals of making traditional voting at polling places fully accessible and also preserving and expanding things like no-explanation-needed mail-in voting, which was so valuable to disabled voters, in particular, in 2020. I would also hope to see congressional, state, and local candidates address basic disability issues, like the relationship between benefits, saving, earning, and work — and how the federal government and states should handle COVID risks and how they specifically affect disabled and chronically ill people.”

As disabled and able bodied citizens head to the polls, we would do well to remember the words of former Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: “We should not be held back from pursuing our full talents, from contributing what we should contribute to the society, because we fit into a certain mold, because we belong to a group that historically has been the object of discrimination.” 

And in the words of Gloria Steinem, feminist icon, lawyer, and author: “Voting isn't the most we can do, but it is the least.”

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