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Promoting the Civic Engagement of People with IDD

By Carli Friedman, CQL Director of Research

Despite being considered “arguably the most important political right” by the United Nations (2011, p. 4), people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) are often disenfranchised in the United States. Historically, the right to vote in the United States has been linked with ideas of ‘competence’ and those with guardianship were systematically denied the ability to vote. While today an increasing number of people with IDD have the ability to vote, laws about people with IDD voting still differ on a state-by-state basis (Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law & National Disability Rights Network, 2012). Even those people with IDD with the rights to vote often experience difficulty doing so because of inaccessible systems and attitudinal barriers of their service providers (Friedman, 2018).

For these reasons, the aim of this study by CQL | The Council on Quality and Leadership was to explore what factors facilitate and hinder the voting participation of people with IDD. To do so, Personal Outcome Measures® interviews from approximately 1,300 people with IDD were analyzed.

Findings revealed only slightly more than half (56.7%) of people with IDD participated in voting. In terms of voting disparities, people who primarily communicate through communication devices were 4.5 times less likely to vote than people who primarily use verbal communication. People with any type of guardianship (i.e., assisted decision making, full guardianship, other) were all less likely to vote than people with independent decision making. People who live in their own homes or apartments were more likely than all other settings (e.g., provider homes, family homes, ICFDD) (Figure 1). For example, people who live in provider owned/operated were 1.7 times less likely to vote than people who live in their own homes.

Odds of Voting Compared to Those Who Live in Their Own Homes

Findings also revealed a number of factors facilitate people with IDD exercising voting rights. For example, people who can choose their DSP staff are 2.2 times more likely to vote (Figure 2). Organizational supports also play a large role in facilitating voting access of people with IDD. When organizations support people with IDD to exercise their rights, solicit people’s preferences, and/or understand what is important to the person regarding respect, people with IDD are twice as likely to vote than when organizations do not do any of these things.

Increased Odds of Voting for Each Factor

As voting is an important part of citizenship, it is critical for more individualized supports to be provided to facilitate people with IDD’s voting participation. By paying attention to the disparities discussed in this study as well as rights more generally organizations can promote the civic engagement of people with IDD.


  • Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, & National Disability Rights Network (2012). State laws affecting the voting rights of people with mental disabilities. Washington, D.C.: Authors.
  • Friedman, C. (2018). “Every vote matters:” Experiences of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the 2016 general election. Review of Disability Studies: An International Journal, 14(1).
  • United Nations (2011, December 21). Thematic study by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on participation in political and public life by persons with disabilities, A/HRC/19/36. United Nations, General Assembly.

This article is a summary of the following journal manuscript: Friedman, C., & Rizzolo, M. C. (2017). Correlates of voting participation of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Journal of social work in disability & rehabilitation, 16(3-4), 347-360.