Disabled people are underrepresented in politics. A new organization aims to change that.

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By Sara Luterman/Originally published by The 19th

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While politicians with disabilities like Sen. John Fetterman have become increasingly visible in national politics, disabled people are still significantly underrepresented. A new organization, Disability Victory, aims to change that.

Founded in May by Sarah Blahovec and Neal Carter, the organization hopes to mirror the success of other groups like the LGBTQ+ Victory Fund and She Should Run in increasing the number of marginalized voices in American politics.

“We need to be involved as decision makers when issues involving our community are being discussed,” Blahovec told The 19th.

Prior to working on Disability Victory, Blahovec was the voting rights and civic engagement director for the National Council on Independent Living, one of the longest-running disabled-lead advocacy organizations in the United States. There, she and Carter started Elevate, the first-ever campaign training program for candidates with disabilities — a precursor to Disability Victory.

“We learned about the challenges people were facing when trying to run for office. People would run for office and their local political parties weren’t supportive or would not provide accommodations,” Blahovec said.

Accessibility is a core principle for Blahovec, and while it has made the rollout a little slower than it might be for other organizations, she would rather do things right than fast.

“Everything we need to do needs to be accessible, and accessibility comes first. We don’t want to launch something where it’s only available to some people and not others,” she said. That means sign language interpreters, professional captioning and ensuring written materials can be read by screen reading software.

Unlike She Should Run and the LGBTQ+ Victory Fund, Disability Victory is not explicitly nonpartisan — the organization aims to foster disabled candidates with progressive values. According to Blahovec, issues that are important to people with disabilities, like affordable health care, accessible transportation and preserving and expanding Medicaid and Social Security, have largely been the purview of progressive candidates.

“We want to make sure candidates are interested in expanding and protecting our civil rights. And that’s just something you tend to see more from progressives,” she said.

Disability Victory is gearing up for the 2024 election by fundraising and recruiting for its first candidate training cohort. The organization also plans to endorse candidates eventually, although that may not be in time for the 2024 election cycle.

“We don’t want to rush anything. We want to have a thorough vetting process and be really beneficial to candidates,” Blahovec said.

There is little data on how many disabled people currently hold elected office in the United States. Lisa Schur and Douglas Kruse, who co-direct the Program for Disability Research at Rutgers University, are some of the few researchers who have explored the issue. In 2019 they used U.S. Census data from 2008-2013 to estimate the number.

According to the Census, about 15.7 percent of all Americans self-report as having some kind of disability. Using the same data, Schur and Kruse found that about 10.3 percent of elected officials reported having a disability — a 5.4 percent gap. The result did not surprise them.

“For so long, people with disabilities were considered incapable of participating in society,” Schur said.

There were some signs in their research this might be changing. The majority of elected officials in their report were working at the local level, and while that could indicate disabled candidates face more bias when they seek higher office and deal with an even broader electorate,it could also indicate that we are about to see a shift.

“It may be a kind of a lifecycle thing, where people with disabilities are entering politics more recently. Politicians tend to start at the local level and move up. So it may be that in the next 10 to 15 years, we’re going to see increased representation at the state and federal level, as local elected officials with disabilities run for and get elected to higher office,” Kruse said.

ChrisTiana ObeySumner is one such candidate, running for city council in Seattle for the first time. They are a multiply disabled social equity consultant who previously served on the Seattle Disability Commission, where they helped push to outlaw subminimum wage for people with disabilities. Their election is on November 7.

ObeySumner has faced “transphobia, antiblackness and ableism” during the election process, including attack ads featuring them holding their cane. They have also struggled with the traditional expectations for local candidates, particularly around canvassing.

“I can’t walk more than maybe half a mile before my body really gives out. We’ve been doing a lot of things on social media. We’ve had a lot of volunteers go door knocking. We set up tables at farmers markets because I could sit at them, but there’s something about wanting to see the candidates go door knocking. There’s this idea that if you’re not door knocking, you’re not serious,” ObeySumner told The 19th.

ObeySumner has also faced significant structural barriers to running for office. For example, they have lost their health insurance after previously being covered under Medicare Part B. Now, the state is counting their campaign contributions as income, disqualifying them.

“[The state] is treating it like when you get a job and you expect your job to pay for your insurance. But you don’t get paid to run for office,” ObeySumner said.

According to Blahovec, ObeySumner’s problem is not unique. When faced with the possibility of losing Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security, many disabled people simply choose not to run.

“Even just running for office can be held against you, as evidence you’re not as disabled as the evaluation [to qualify for a benefit] said you were,” Blahovec said.

She hopes that Disability Victory will be able to help disabled candidates navigate these problems in the future, to change the landscape for disabled involvement in politics.

“We want to support candidates who are the first of many, who use [disability] to connect with their communities and bring in their lived experience of every issue being a disability issue. We want to make sure that policy is more reflective,” she said.

Image: Freepik