The Intersection Of Disability Rights And Voting Rights

Our guest author today is Norman Hill, lifelong activist in the Civil Rights and Labor movements. Mr. Hill served as the president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute from 1980 to 2004, the longest tenure in the organization’s history. He remains its president emeritus.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is among the most consequential legislative achievements in the history of the United States, having codified for the first time the right to vote for Black Americans established in the 15th Amendment of the Constitution. The resulting enforcement of the VRA led to increasing levels of voter participation not just by Black Americans, whose rights had been viciously suppressed in the South, but also nationally for all Americans of color and those who did not read or speak the English language. In the 2008 and 2012 elections, Black Americans surpassed White Americans in voter participation. In 2018 and 2020 elections, there was record participation by Latino, Asian American and Native American voters.

Little known or mentioned in the law is a provision that also greatly affected the voting rights of another large and previously segregated minority: disabled Americans. In addition to establishing the right of un-coerced assistance for those unable to read or write in English, Section 208 of the VRA established that right for “any voter who requires assistance to vote by reason of blindness or disability.”

This provision was among the first legislative acts aimed at decreasing discrimination and increasing citizen participation of disabled Americans, a population that has grown from one-tenth to now one-quarter of the population. And while voting participation of disabled Americans still lags that of the non-disabled by 5.7 percent, it has grown from a much lower percentage to 62 percent in the high-turnout 2020 election, when voting processes were made easier for all Americans due to the pandemic. (The disparity is due to non-employed disabled Americans; participation rates between employed disabled and non-disabled voters are nearly the same.)

The intersection of disability rights and voting rights was made tangible to me when I lost my sight in 2004 from a rare eye disease (Leber Optical Hereditary Neuropathy). In that November’s election, for the first time, I accessed the right of assistance through a poll worker and my wife Velma to vote. But as a lifelong civil rights and trade union activist and long-time director and President of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, I had known the intersection already. An ignored, but not surprising statistic is that African Americans have the highest percentage of disabilities of any racial or ethnic group, making up 20 percent of the disabled population. For almost 40 years at the APRI, both in helping organize 200 chapters and assisting them in voter registration and participation drives, I experienced this statistic also at a tangible level. After 1965, efforts at impeding Black voter registration and participation often involved physical impediments or lack of accommodations affecting disabled minorities most of all.


The intersection of disability and voting rights has many profound aspects. Disability rights, like voting rights, are civil rights. And as with the achievement of civil rights for African Americans, achieving fuller civil rights for the disabled was the result of concerted individual effort and sacrifice, self-liberation through group activism, non-violent action, and the building of broad coalitions to gain majority support for enacting legislation and ensuring implementation through federal oversight and court enforcement.

As with African Americans, the disabled population historically had experienced a high degree of social, economic and civic segregation and discrimination, which was incorporated into both law and practice. Legislation dating to the 19th century instituted the ongoing warehousing of both the physically and mentally disabled and also instituted and allowed widespread discrimination in education, employment, access to public facilities, and citizen and voter participation. Levels of voter registration and participation for the disabled were likely even lower than Black participation, not just nationally but also in the Jim Crow South.

While many efforts had been made to try to improve the education and lives of disabled people starting in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was the Civil Rights Movement of the 1940s to 1960s that established the model and framework for the disabled community also to take concerted non-violent action to overcome systematic discrimination and break down legalized structures of segregation. In the late 1960s and 1970s, disability advocates seized the opportunity to begin achieving basic legislative victories at the state and federal level using principles of peaceful civic resistance, non-violent action and coalition building. On the heels of the VRA, using both protest and effective lobbying, the disability community won passage of a series of laws prohibiting architectural barriers in federally owned or leased buildings (1968); requiring wheelchair lifts on new mass transit vehicles (1970); prohibiting discrimination in federal and federally funded programs and services (the Rehabilitation Act of 1973); requiring free public education in the least restrictive environment possible for disabled children (passed first in 1975 and now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act); and laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability in air travel and housing.

As with Civil Rights legislation, enforcing implementation took both court action and protest action. The most significant example of protest action was in 1977, when Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Joseph Califano continued the prior administration’s hold-up in establishing enforcement regulations for the Rehabilitation Act under its Section 504 provision. The disability rights community organized a nationwide “Section 504” protest movement to push the Carter Administration to act, including occupation of federal buildings in many cities. Judith Heumann led the most significant action: an occupation of San Francisco’s HEW regional office building. Hundreds of members of the disabled community (supported by the Black community) took part in the longest peaceful occupation of a federal building in civic protest history, lasting 28 days, and resulting in the Carter Administration’s final agreement on effective 504 provisions that paved the way for equal treatment in all federal and federally funded programs and services.

The most significant legislation, however, was the Americans with Disability Act, signed into law in 1990, which established for the first time a true pathway to equal citizenship by outlawing discrimination in all areas of public life. The Act’s Title 2 provided even greater legal basis than the VRA for removing physical impediments to voting at all polling sites. Added to this was the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, which equalized access to voter registration for disabled Americans. As importantly, the Help America Vote Act of 2002 established a mandate that all Americans with disabilities be given equal opportunity to vote as freely and independently as other voters. The law established the Election Assistance Commission to assist states in improving systems and voter access and mandated that secure, private and independent casting of ballots be established for voters with disabilities.


Also not surprisingly, the organization that helped achieve the most important legislative victories for disability rights was the same as that for achieving voting rights: the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Its history is instructive for understanding further the intersection of disability rights and voting rights.

Civil rights and trade union leader A. Philip Randolph founded the Leadership Conference in 1950 with Roy Wilkins, Executive Director of the NAACP, UAW president Walter Reuther, and Arnold Aronson, leader of the National Jewish Community Relations Council. Randolph had two years earlier forced President Truman to sign an Executive Order for the integration of the armed forces by threatening mass action through his controversial League for Non-Violent Civil Disobedience Against Military Segregation. This effort had followed Randolph’s March on Washington Movement, whose initial threat to march on the Capitol in 1941 had pressured President Roosevelt to sign Executive Order 8802 banning discrimination in federally funded defense industries, vocational program, and government generally. Yet, while achieving two of the most important breakthroughs in civil rights of the 20th century, Randolph failed to gain a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission in federal and federally funded employment due to a Southern Democratic filibuster. He understood more was needed for achieving broader civil and voting rights. The larger victories he sought would require building a national coalition that could successfully lobby Congress for effective legislation. He set out to put that together with Wilkins, Reuther and Aronson. As the civil rights protest movement grew in strength during the ‘50s, so did the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (the original name). It played a central and unifying role in lobbying for passage of the 1957 and 1960 Civil Rights Acts — and later the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act and Fair Housing Act.

The LCCHR expanded its mission to achieve civil and human rights for all communities (it now has more than 200 organizations). Spurred by the disability rights organizations that joined it, the Leadership Conference played a similar leading role in lobbying for disability rights legislation. Its role in passage of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act was particularly significant as the Bush Administration and leading Republicans threatened to hold up the legislation.


Today, the intersection of disability and voting rights could not be clearer. Just as the institutionalization and enforcement of the Voting Rights Act and the National Voter Registration Act helped increase Black voter registration and participation to record levels in 2008 and 2012 (and close to that level in 2020), so did the disability rights provisions in this legislation (as well as the voting rights provisions in the ADA and HAVA) helped increase voter participation by disabled Americans, leading to their record participation in 2018 and 2020.

Similarly, just as a Republican-led Supreme Court and Republican-led legislatures have undermined the Voting Rights Act to depress voter registration and voting by Blacks and other people of color, provisions in new state laws (now in 21 states) aim clearly at increasing impediments to register and vote for disabled Americans (believed also to vote more heavily for Democrats). In response to a high-turnout election that elected a Democratic President and Congress, Republican-led legislatures, empowered by the Supreme Court’s gutting of the VRA, have adopted new state laws limiting the types of state-issued identification, allowing widespread voter roll purges, restricting the time period for requesting mail ballots, restricting the number of drop boxes and access for on-site early voting, and allowing greater intimidation at the polls by partisan poll watchers. Such provisions will impact the disabled community equally or more than communities of color to suppress the vote.

There is an urgent need for passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore the enforcement mechanisms of the original VRA, and the Freedom to Vote Act, which would ensure easier voter registration and voter access and bar gerrymandering. There is need also to pass the lesser-known Americans with Disabilities Voting Act, introduced this year, which would require vote-by-mail accessibility for all disabled voters; require state and local election officials and poll officials to be trained in accessibility features of vote-by-mail procedures and voting machines; and further ensure equal in-person voting accessibility for blind and low-vision voters that includes privacy and independence. All three pieces of legislation could be passed if the filibuster were amended to allow voting rights legislation to be passed by regular majority in the Senate. (The broader For the People Act, which includes ethics and financing rules to level the playing field, does not have the support of 50 Senators.)

It is up to the same coalition that passed original voting rights and disability rights legislation to again act with the commitment and methods of previous generations that achieved a measure of multiracial and inclusive democracy for the United States. The same principles and vision that A. Philip Randolph brought to the civil rights and voting rights struggles — self-liberation of a group through individual and mass action, non-violent civic resistance, building and acting in majority coalitions — are the same that the disability rights movement used in its struggle for equality. As we face again the erosion of American democracy, A. Philip Randolph’s basic credo remains ever-relevant:

At the banquet table of nature, there are no reserved seats. You get what you can take, and you keep what you can hold. If you can't take anything, you won't get anything, and if you can't hold anything, you won't keep anything. And you can't take anything without organization.