The sleeping giant of American politics

People with disabilities: the sleeping giant of American politics

Jim Dickson

Fifty-six million Americans have some type of disability. Two and a half million people use wheelchairs, 110,000 are blind and have no light perception, 1.7 million are legally blind, and 11 million people use sign language as their primary means of communication. These are visible disabilities.

However, it is important to know that most disabilities are “invisible.” Less visible are disabilities caused by epilepsy, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, traumatic brain injury, mental retardation, AIDS, some forms of multiple sclerosis, psychiatric disabilities, and cancer.

Voting Registration and People with Disabilities

For a number of reasons, people who are disabled vote at a 10-20 percent lower rate that nondisabled voters. In fact, if people with disabilities voted at the same rate as those without disabilities, 4.6 million more votes would have been cast in the last presidential election. (1)

Poor voter turnout by Americans with disabilities is partly a result of low voter registration rates. There are approximately 27 million people with disabilities who did not wrote in the 2000 presidential election; more than 10 million are not even registered to vote. (2) In fact, people with disabilities register to vote at a rate that is 16 percent lower than able-bodied Americans. (3)

The National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), known as the Motor Voter Law, requires state agencies that provide services to persons with disabilities to offer voter registration to their clients “with each application for such services or assistance, and with each recertification, renewal or change of address form.” (4) A National Organization on Disability/Louis Harris poll reports that only 58 percent of people with disabilities have been offered the opportunity to register to vote by their service providers, indicating widespread violation of the NVRA. (5)

Agencies required to offer this service include Paratransit providers. Paratransit is a public transportation system that offers curb-to-curb or door-to-door transportation for people with disabilities. Approximately one million people with disabilities nationwide receive Paratransit rides, and at least 400,000 of these individuals are not registered to vote. Recently, a district court in Pennsylvania ruled that the NVRA requires state-funded Paratransit agencies to provide voter registration opportunities to their clients. (6) Plaintiffs in the case requested that the court make a declaration that the state violated the NVRA by failing to designate its transportation authorities as voter registration agencies.

A Question of Access

One of the reasons people with disabilities, especially those in wheelchairs, do not vote is because of difficulty accessing polling places. A Rutgers University poll reports that 27 percent of nonvoting people with disabilities expect to have access problems at the polls. A General Accounting Office (GAO) report states that 84 percent of all polling places have some sort of barrier to voters with mobility disabilities. (7) Gary Bartlett, the executive secretary-director of the State Board of Elections in North Carolina, recently surveyed the polling places in one of his counties. He found that 20 percent of that county’s polling places had been classified incorrectly as accessible. Rhode Island is the only state in the country to make all its polling places wheelchair accessible.

Over the past few years, the disability community and election officials have been meeting to address these ballot access problems. The National Task Force on Election Accessibility published in 2000 a polling place access guide that is available on the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) Web site, This guide has been mailed by the Federal Election Commission to every election official in the country.

On the other hand, some states are making changes because the courts are forcing them to do so. On February 8, 2000, Judge Howard G. Munson of the Northern District of New York granted an injunction by that state’s attorney general requiring that Schoharie and Delaware counties modify their polling places to comply with the New York State Election Law and the Americans with Disabilities Act prior to New York’s presidential primaries. The lengthy and detailed decision rejected each of the counties’ arguments, including that the attorney general’s demands were unnecessary and “overly bureaucratic.” (8) Lawsuits have also been filed against Philadelphia and Jacksonville, Florida. In August 2002, a settlement was reached in a suit against the District of Columbia, requiring accessibility for blind and mobility-impaired voters. (9)

In addition to the problem of physical access to the polling place, millions of disabled Americans are denied the right to cast a secret ballot. This includes voters who are blind and low vision, as well as those who have limited hand mobility. However, technology does exist that enables these voters to cast a secret ballot on a “talking voting system.” The voter hears the ballot and follows the prompts in the same manner as when a customer calls his bank or utility company, only in this case the computer is reading the names of candidates for office. Maryland and Georgia require one such accessible voting machine in every polling place, and the city of Houston has already used such a system in two elections. There are five manufacturers of accessible voting equipment. These are listed on the AAPD Web site.

Closing the voter registration gap and making polling places accessible are just the start to increasing the voter turnout of people with disabilities. These two agendas, while important, must be supplemented with nonpartisan voter education and get-out-the-vote drives. Disability service providers must promote the importance of voting to all of their clients. Local coalitions and disability advocates, assisted by national and state disability organizations, can help achieve this goal through multiple mailings and phone banking.

To increase the discussion of voting among disability service providers, the National Organization on Disability and the League of Women Voters have published a nonpartisan, get-out-the-disabled-vote manual. This comprehensive manual, also available on the AAPD Web site, contains detailed information and instructions for disability service providers.

Exercising the right to vote as full and equal participants in the democratic process is of great importance to all citizens with disabilities. The American Association of People with Disabilities’ Disability Vote Project seeks to showcase the importance of voting within the disability community. As the disability community establishes itself as a powerful voting bloc, Americans will be all the more ready to accept and encourage all that people with disabilities have to offer the nation.


(1) The Disability Vote in the November 2000 Election, Harris Interactive Poll, Mar. 6, 2001.

(2) U.S. Census Bureau, Americans with Disabilities: 1997 Household Economic Studies, February 2001; Harris Interactive, 2001.

(3) Harris Interactive, 2001.

(4) 42 U.S.C. [section] 1973gg-5(a)(6)(1994).

(5) “Statistics on Voter Registration of People with Disabilities,” excerpt from National Organization on Disabilities/Harris 2000 Survey of Americans with Disabilities, accessed at locationld=5$locationNm=Stats%20%26%20Surveys.

(6) Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now v. Ridge, 2000 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 310 (Jan. 14, 2000).

(7) U.S. General Accounting Office, Voters with Disabilities: Access to Polling Places and Alternative Methods, GAO-02-107, October 2001.

(8) New York v. County of Delaware, 82 F. Supp. 2d 12 (N.D.N.Y.). See also New York v. County of Delaware, 2000 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 12595 (Aug. 16, 2000) (the court found that not all polling places were accessible and ordered defendants to take measures to comply with the earlier order).

(9) “AAPD Plaintiff in Landmark Lawsuit Against the District of Columbia that has Just Been Settled,” American Association of People with Disabilities News, accessed at marksettledcvotemach.html. The American Association of People with Disabilities et al. v. District of Columbia, No. 01-1884 (RMU).


COPYRIGHT 2002 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group