People with disabilities have strong reasons to focus on Midterm Elections, and not just Congressional candidates, or control of the House and Senate.
Disability activism may not be the most visible cause in American life, but it is still a vast and complex movement, with many urgent and long term priorities. The highest profile disability activism tends to focus on national politics, especially the activities of Congress and the White House. There are logical reasons for this.
National-level politics and activism affect the whole country; federal disability policy and programs affect all disabled Americans. Washington politics is what we hear about the most. It’s the easiest to get information about. Oddly enough, many disabled people find it easier to connect with national disability movements than it is to link up with disability activism in their own communities. But a lot of disability-related policy and governing happens at state and local levels.
For example, state legislatures decide what states will and won’t spend money on. Depending on the state, that can include large portions of disabled people’s health care, direct, everyday support services like home care, vocational rehabilitation and supported employment, and funding for state-level transportation, housing, and income support.
County legislatures also have more influence than people may realize on funding for health care, and especially on how long term care funds are prioritized — towards more nursing home beds, or more home care. Counties also fund local transit services, and make decisions on how to maintain the roads and pedestrian areas under their jurisdictions.
Meanwhile, city, town, and village governments prioritize, shape, and pay for a lot of the physical infrastructure that determines whether communities are accessible and easy to navigate for disabled people, or dangerous and full of barriers. And of course, governments of large cities are as complex and important as some state governments, and have a major influence on nearly every aspect of everyday life for their disabled citizens.
Finally, it’s a mistake to overlook school boards. It may seem like education for kids with disabilities is highly regulated and funded from “higher up.” In fact, local public school districts have a great deal of power to set the tone and priorities for Special Education and accommodations for disabled students. Depending on its members and their philosophies, a school board can enthusiastically commit to making education truly accessible and transformative for disabled students — or carefully do the bare minimum and take every opportunity to pass responsibility for disabled students off to segregated classrooms and “compliant” but lackluster efforts at inclusion.
As we move through the primaries and 2022 Midterm Election campaigns ramp up, people with disabilities, their families, and allies can help push disability issues to the forefront by asking questions. Disabled people can do this using every means of communication available and accessible. This can include:
- Emails and texts to campaigns from their websites.
- Replying to voter opinion surveys sent out by candidates and raising disability issues in them.
- Engaging with campaign volunteers who visit homes and campaign in public spaces.
- Meeting and speaking directly to candidates at campaign events.
Here are just a few sample questions disabled voters and their allies can ask state and local candidates during this Midterm Election season:
1. What should local governments do to improve pedestrian safety and accessibility?
One of the most direct ways local governments either neglect or improve everyday accessibility for disabled residents and visitors is how well they ensure that streets, sidewalks, parks, and other outdoor public spaces are safe and accessible. This affects wheelchair users and people with other mobility impairments, as well as blind and deaf pedestrians. And it’s especially critical for disabled people who don’t drive and must get around on foot or in wheelchairs. Barriers can include improperly designed or missing curb cuts, narrow sidewalks, intersection signals without audible or tactile warnings, general deterioration, and poor snow and ice removal in winter environments.
There are a number of ways candidates for local office can commit to addressing this question. For example:
- Taking wheelchair and blind accessibility into account when approving requests for businesses to use sidewalks for display or seating.
- Making street and sidewalk repairs and proper accessibility features in public buildings a high priority, rather than a chronic afterthought.
- Using some of the new federal infrastructure funds to step up barrier removal in public spaces.
2. What should state and local government do to improve accessibility in businesses?
It often seems like no government authority wants to take responsibility for making private businesses accessible. The Americans with Disabilities Act mandates accessibility in businesses and other public accommodations. But it is a federal law with typically weak enforcement mechanisms. State and local governments have varying amounts of authority in business accessibility. But they often don’t exercise it, either from simple neglect, or for other reasons, like “encouraging small business,” or “historic preservation.”
Local candidates can and should consider more attentive positions, such as:
- Using whatever official and informal mechanisms are available to make sure new businesses are fully accessible, and old ones continue to improve as much as is feasible.
- Appoint code inspectors who will treat accessibility standards as seriously as fire and safety codes. One of the few areas where a strong, proactive, and consistent public commitment can make a real difference.
- Make smooth, convenient accessibility a high priority partly as a way to attract shoppers and tourists, including older retirees who may not always identify as “disabled,” but who tend to have impairments that cause them to choose accessible businesses over those that are not.
3. What actions would you support to address home care shortages and reduce waiting lists for services?
Home care was never entirely easy to get for elderly and disabled people who need it to live independently and avoid institutionalization in nursing homes and other care facilities. Now, most disability communities in the US find themselves in an outright home care crisis. There is a severe home care shortage, due to the Covid pandemic and the greatly increased difficulty of attracting the workers necessary to provide all of the home care people are actually eligible for. Disabled people find they can no longer find help to provide the services they need. And most states have actual waiting lists of people fully eligible for services that states say they can’t afford to provide.
State legislatures need to significantly increase home care and support worker pay and benefits, to attract and retain good aides. Increased federal funding for this is now stalled, along with the rest of the “Build Back Better” plan. But states cannot simply throw up their hands and refuse to do what they can to improve the situation now.
State legislature and gubernatorial candidates should be pressed to do better on home care. They need to be asked what they will support — down to specific budget amounts and home care pay rates. For those the issue affects, there is no more critical and life-shaping, (or life-threatening), issue.
4. Would you support ending sub-minimum wage?
Hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities are paid less than minimum wage for their hard work, under an outdated provision of federal labor law from the 1930s.
Defenders of the practice say it’s the only way some people with disabilities can get jobs — that regular Minimum Wage will make it impossible for employers to hire or retain them. But many states have done away with sub-minimum wage, without widespread unemployment or other disruptions. And the federal government is close to eliminating sub-minimum wages nationwide. The gradual end of this practice is within sight, and probably inevitable.
State-level candidates have a choice. They can champion the goal of ending sub-minimum wage, and work with disabled people, families, and employers to make a steady but smooth transition to more just and competitive pay for all disabled workers. Or, they can defend the status quo, buying into the implication that disabled workers’ labor is somehow worth less than others, and that whatever pay they get they should be grateful for. Local governments can also weigh in by only contracting with vendors who pay all disabled workers Minimum Wage or higher.
5. What would you do to make voting more accessible to people with disabilities?
Efforts to restrict voting options and methods in the name of “security” or “integrity” pre-date the 2020 Election. But since then these efforts have intensified, specifically in state legislatures. Measures that tend to disenfranchise disabled voters include stricter voter ID laws, reducing or eliminating early voting periods, and making it harder rather than easier to choose voting by mail.
State legislators must understand that making voting harder, for whatever reasons seem justified, has the effect of making voting exponentially louder for people with disabilities. State candidates should commit to at least maintaining the more flexible options for voting that enabled unprecedented numbers of disabled people to vote in 2020. State and local elected officials can also help support disabled people’s right to vote. They can make sure local election officials place polling places only in fully accessible locations, and properly train poll workers to treat disabled voters with respect and help them cast fully independent votes.
Beyond disability issue-specific questions like these, disabled people and their allies can pressure all state and local candidates to include disability positions and policies as a regular part of their campaign platforms. They should be doing this automatically, without being asked. It should be as essential as mayoral candidates laying out their positions on downtown development and public safety, or state legislature candidates explaining their positions on taxes, criminal justice, and education funding. Local officials can do a lot to make life better for people with disabilities. And disabled voters no longer need to settle for vague expressions of sympathy and support from their local candidates.