Nowadays, it is estimated that around 25 percent of adults in America have some kind of disability, and this number is one that continues to grow. Between the years 2008 and 2016, research has shown an increase of more than 10 percent in the number of disabled voters that are eligible to vote. Over the last couple of decades, the US has passed a plethora of legislative bills that support equitable voter access and they have improved the rights of people with disabilities. However, despite this, the number of politicians in the United States that have some type of disability stands at just 10 percent of the elected officials that were sampled.
Disabled Female Politicians Are Even Rarer
Female politicians with a disability are even rarer, despite the fact that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also known as the CDC, has found that disabilities are much more present in women than they are in men. Disabled women in the United States experience are misrepresented nearly twice as much as their male counterparts. Why is this the case though?
Well, the latest report by RepresentWomen gives us the answer to the above questions and identifies a number of structural barriers that stop people with disabilities participating in politics in the United States. A 2017 report carried out by the Government Accountability Office declared that about 60 percent of the 178 polling locations that were assessed had at least one barrier for those with a disability.
This means that although the number of disabled Americans who are eligible to vote is increasing, they cannot exercise their right to do so because of a number of barriers such as the lack of a ramp or elevator for those who are in a wheelchair. This is something that has vast negative effects on the electoral representation.
The Main Barrier for Disabled Candidates
High unemployment levels in the disabled community – 82.1 percent during 2020 – as well as low socioeconomic status are two significant barriers for candidates with a disability. Additionally, the high costs involved in a political campaign in the US is a factor that can often put people offer from running for office to start with. Political parties also make use of these financial issues to justify their inaccessibility rather than come up with ways to remove the roadblocks that plague disabled candidates. This means that disabled politicians are often alienated from their parties – they will need to cover the costs of accessibility themselves and will have to opt out from attending key events.
Disabled women face extra obstacles that are related to their “intersectional disempowerment”, which is a term that Dr. Kimeberlé Crenshaw termed. It means that disabled women have to put up with discrimination that is related to disability as well as their gender such as distorted media coverage, competency bias, as well as the male incumbency advantage. Then there are many who experience even more obstacles due to other barriers such as their race. When all this is taken into consideration, it will not come as much of a shock to find out that there are 13 disabled politicians in the US federal government, and just three of them are women.
How Can the Situation be Improved?
So, just how exactly can we improve the disabled representation, especially women, in politics in the United States? Well, we feel that political parties are important gatekeepers to the elected office, but that their less than satisfactory engagement with disabled voters and candidates is something that has contributed significantly to the underrepresentation of disabled people.
To decrease the constant turnout gap between non-disabled and disabled voters, the disabled community’s underrepresentation, and the female underrepresentation within that group, we feel that a number of different actions can be taken such as recruitment quotas and accessibility funds. Disabled candidates and voters deserve to be equally represented in politics, so it is time that we moved beyond just promising equality and started enacting it.