Fighting For Disability Rights Is Fighting For Democracy

Our guest author today is Randi Weingarten, president of the Albert Shanker Institute and the American Federation of Teachers.

We are witnessing the most ominous threats to our democracy in our lifetimes—from the January 6 insurrection and attempt to overturn the results of the presidential election, to the slew of voter suppression laws recently passed by Republican-controlled state legislatures, to the anti-democracy forces working to interfere with vote counting and even manipulate the outcome of elections. Another threat to democracy receives scant attention despite its substantial impact—the disenfranchisement of voters with disabilities. One in four people in America lives with a disability, and many face steep obstacles that make it difficult or impossible to vote.

Our responsibility as citizens is not just to vote; it is to demand Access and accessibility so that everyone who is eligible can vote and every vote is counted. That means fighting against voter suppression laws that disproportionately target racial minorities, older Americans, veterans, and low-income voters. And it includes demanding that people with disabilities have the unfettered ability to vote. The fight for voting rights is one that should include everyone. When we help each other vote, we are helping our democracy thrive.

We look to the disability community for their expertise on the intersection of voting rights and disability rights. Just earlier this month, during an event hosted by the Albert Shanker Institute and The Century Foundation, Why Voting Rights Matter for People with Disabilities, international disability rights activist, author, and teacher Judy Heumann recounted her first voting experience. She had to be carried up the stairs to her polling place by her father because it was not wheelchair accessible. As recently as November 2020, U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth described arriving to her polling place and needing to balance on her prosthetic leg because the wheelchair-accessible voting machine was broken.

In an October 2017 study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), nearly two-thirds of the 137 polling places inspected on Election Day 2016 had at least one impediment to people with disabilities. In the 2008 presidential election, it was fewer than half. We are going the wrong direction as a country in accommodating voters with disabilities and we should all be concerned by stories like Senator Duckworth’s and statistics like those collected by the GAO.

As Norman Hill, a lifelong activist in the Civil Rights and Labor movements who also served as the president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, said in this blog post, disability rights, like voting rights, are civil rights. From the passage of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to the passage of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act to the present, persons with disabilities have made significant progress—but only because of their persistent activism. It is up to all of us to defend voting rights and voting access by speaking out alongside the disability community for accessibility in voter registration, polling places, even public transportation to the polls.

The American Federation of Teachers will always advocate alongside the disability community—in education, in healthcare, and in our collective right to participate in our democracy.

Our members who are educators are experts at understanding and fighting for the Free Appropriate Public Education to which our students with disabilities have a right. Our members are committed to democracy. It is intuitive to us to advocate for the support and expansion of voting rights for everyone. It is appalling to us that the voting rights of the disability community remain so threatened 56 years after the Voting Rights Act was first passed. Fortunately there is something we can do.

In addition to working state by state to elect leaders who believe in voting rights and who will invalidate state laws that restrict voting rights, we must also collectively pressure the U.S. Senate to pass the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which create real access to ease the hardships disabled Americans have confronted  in participating in elections.

The Freedom to Vote Act establishes rules for federal elections that would supersede many state-level voting restrictions. And the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would establish new preclearance formulas. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder gutted a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act—the requirement that states with a history of discriminatory voting laws seek federal preclearance to pass new voting laws. Historically, these laws have targeted voters of color, but provisions like limiting mail-in voting and increasing voter ID requirements can disenfranchise voters with disabilities.

However, while voter suppression tactics are happening at the state level, we also face a serious impediment at the Federal level. Even though there are at least 50 votes to pass these two bills they cannot get to the floor because of the filibuster in the Senate. The filibuster was used to block civil rights legislation, including anti-lynching and anti-poll tax measures in the 19th and 20th centuries. Senator Mitch McConnell and Republicans have used the filibuster four times in 2021 to block the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act—preventing even discussion and debate on voting rights legislation. We must work to reform the Senate rules as they are standing in the way of not only these bills but the will of the people

Until recently, most Americans had only been spectators to assaults on democracy. But these threats are real and wide-ranging. We have no choice but to work together to press back against the forces working to undermine the foundations of our democracy.