In America, 42.5 million people live with a disability. Of these, an estimated 30 million are eligible voters. Despite being one of the largest voting blocks, however, disabled people are underrepresented in electoral politics—both at the polls and on the ballot. But organizations like New Disabled South and Disability Victory are working to change the tide and help disabled people access the tools they need to build political power.
The advocacy work of New Disabled South and Disability Victory—led by and for disabled people—are examples of the power that comes when marginalized people advocate for themselves. It also shows that when the concerns of the most marginalized are addressed, everyone benefits.
A More Inclusive Political Process
This advocacy work—led by and for disabled people—is an example of the power that comes when marginalized people are able to advocate for themselves.
One-third of disabled people live in the South, a place where blatant ableism intersects with racism and classism. Rampant poll closures concentrated in poorer and Blacker counties, for instance, have a disparate impact on disabled people who already face access barriers at the polls.
New Disabled South—the first regional disability rights organization in the country—is paving the way to ensure that disabled people are more fully included in the political process. Founded in November 2022 by Dom Kelly and Kehsi Iman, the organization’s work focuses on 14 states in the South.
After noticing that many bills impacting disabled people are written in language that is difficult for most people to understand, Kelly and Iman realized that to get disabled people engaged in the legislative process, they needed to make understanding bills and legislation more accessible. They decided to create a plain language policy dashboard.
In a recent interview with NPQ, e.k. hoffman, the assistant director of the organization’s 501(c)(4) arm who led the dashboard project, explained how it works.
“It is connected to bill tracking that makes it so we don’t have to manually track everything, but it does have this beautiful human element to it….We use a couple of AI tools to start the process of putting these bills into plain language, but we also have people who are able to…ensure that it is a correct and accurate interpretation of it and make sure that it is actually in accessible language,” hoffman said.
As hoffman notes, one of the most accessible aspects of the dashboard, in addition to the plain language component, is the fact that it is not confined behind a paywall, so it is accessible to anyone who has an internet connection.
Since the organization unveiled the dashboard on X earlier this month, Kelly says he has received responses from people saying that this is something they have needed for a long time. He’s also had people reach out to him from states outside the South, wanting to know how they can incorporate a similar model where they live. Kelly and hoffman see the dashboard as a project that will continue to grow.
“I’ve always been an advocate for myself, so it was only a natural progression to advocate for others.”
“As it continues to develop into a tool, I hope that it can help not only individuals but also organizations to expand their outreach education and planning in terms of their policy priorities. I also dream of it including federal legislation and being able to be integrated into other accessible products and tools,” hoffman said.
Meanwhile, Kelly also serves as the treasurer of the board of directors for Disability Victory, an organization that Neal Carter and Sarah Blahovec founded in May 2023. The organization seeks to build the political power of disabled progressives through training, networking, and political development.
Blahovec and Carter previously worked together to form Elevate, the first campaign-training program for candidates with disabilities. At the time, Blahovec served as the civic engagement and voting rights director at the National Council on Independent Living (NCIL). She has extensive civic engagement and advocacy experience.
As someone who is both Black and disabled, Carter’s first entry point into advocacy work was learning how to advocate for himself. Now a political strategist with over 20 years of consulting experience, Carter spearheads the country’s first Black and disabled-owned general consulting firm.
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“I’ve always been an advocate for myself,” Carter told NPQ, “so it was only a natural progression to advocate for others.”
“The problem is when it comes to lobbying on behalf of disabled people, a lot of these folks who can’t speak to the lived experience of being disabled…leav[e] out the people who actually have that experience.”
The Push to Mobilize Disability Advocacy
Carter and Blahovec have seen firsthand how disabled people face unnecessary obstacles when attempting to run for office. They note how John Fetterman’s need to utilize closed captioning during a debate became a debate itself, how a deaf mayoral candidate encountered obstacles with receiving ASL interpretation, and how Andrea Jenkins, who was reelected to the Minneapolis City Council this year, had her abilities questioned because she lives with multiple sclerosis.
As Blahovec noted, these attempts to shut disabled people out of the policymaking process dilute the entire process because often policy decisions are made about disabled people with no disabled people in the room.
“The problem is when it comes to lobbying on behalf of disabled people, a lot of these folks who can’t speak to the lived experience of being disabled or having a particular disability are in the rooms and leaving out the people who actually have that experience,” Blahovec said in an interview with NPQ.
Blahovec acknowledged that when she and Carter started working together, there was no infrastructure to address the challenges disabled people face when running for office. Although movements like Crip the Vote had emerged to galvanize disabled voters, in many ways, disabled people were still being left out of the policymaking process.
Digital advocacy like the Crip the Vote campaign mobilized the disability movement. Carter created a hashtag, #SolidarityIsForTheAbleBodied, and by 2016, Vilissa Thompson, a Black woman disability advocate, had made the #DisabilityTooWhite hashtag, further amplifying how disability advocates often sideline the voices and experiences of people of color.
These efforts forced political leaders to take notice. In 2016, Hilary Clinton was the only presidential candidate with a disability policy platform on her campaign. By 2020, every Democratic candidate and some Republican candidates had a disability platform—disabled people themselves helped write many of these platforms.
“Campaigns were working with disabled people, reaching out to disabled people as a constituency, and writing policy platforms. We saw that momentum and more disabled folks who were openly identifying were working on those campaigns,” Blahovec reflected.
Now, three years into the pandemic and with a surge of new people identifying as disabled, Blahovec and Carter are prepared to continue mobilizing.
In September, they received responses from over 30 disabled people considering running for office, working on campaigns, and, in some cases, already campaigning.
As they put a training program together for these individuals, they are intentionally bringing in trainers with disabilities, many of whom live at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities. They are seeking people who “can speak to not only ableism, but the intersection of sexism and racism, queer- and transphobia, and how those experiences fundamentally change the type of ableism that you experience or the type of barriers and responses that you get.” Blahovec said.
“When we rolled out Disability Victory back in May, we were intentional about being a disability-led organization, having a majority disability board, incorporating levels of accessibility in our training apparatus,” Carter stated. “We wanted to say, ‘These are our lived experiences, and you have to comprehend that and sit at the table with us.’”