By Mary Kay Rizzolo, CQL President and CEO
“We can’t be complaining about the candidates if we’re not going out and doing something about it!” exclaims Michelle, a self-advocate who lives in New York. “People aren’t taking the time to sit down, go over the candidates, put on the debates and listen to the issues.”
According to the US Census Bureau, roughly 35 million people with disabilities will be eligible to vote in the upcoming election. During the 2012 election, 15.6 million people with disabilities reported voting, meaning a rate of around 56.8% of eligible voters. This is in comparison to the rate of 62.5% of eligible voters without disabilities. Had people with disabilities voted at the same rate of those without disabilities, it would have added up to an additional 3 million votes. When every vote counts, it’s critical that every eligible vote is accounted for. So what are some factors that can be attributed to this gap in voting rates?
To explore the disparity among people with disabilities exercising this right, CQL collected and analyzed Personal Outcome Measures® data to better understand factors that could affect low registration rates and low voter turnout of eligible voters with disabilities. Personal Outcome Measures® are a powerful tool to better understand what really matters in the lives of people receiving supports and services. This is accomplished through a valid and reliable interview process, which explores outcomes related to family, friends, community, goals, dreams, employment, relationships, respect and more. Interviewers ask questions and gather information about 21 indicators, one of which is ‘People Exercise Rights.’ This indicator includes questions about people exercising the right to vote, which could include people voting or making the choice not to vote at all among other topics of rights.
In advance of the upcoming election, CQL developed a data brief about voting, authored by Carli Friedman, CQL’s Director of Research. Our study includes feedback from interviews completed by approximately 900 people, with a wide range of disabilities, collected in 2015.
As a result of these findings, a number of factors were identified, which are categorized into five unique classifications:
- Disability Diagnosis
- Communication Method
- Decision-Making Authority
- Residence Type and Size
- Barriers, Supports and Organizations
While the nature of this study wasn’t intended to identify causal aspects of the five factors or develop solutions to improve voting outcomes, the data brief does provide a snapshot with valuable insight. Advocates, provider agencies and other systems can use it as a springboard for discussion and discovery in their efforts to better understand voting habits, and ultimately improve supports to enhance this right. To demonstrate this, we talked with two self-advocates from New York, to get their perspective on the influence of these factors on voting rights. The types of discussions the data brief raised, can serve as an example of the types of discussions you can have within your organization.
CQL’s review of the Personal Outcome Measures® data shows that those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, autism, seizure disorders and neurological-related diagnoses are two times less likely to exercise voting rights, in comparison to those with other disabilities.
Due to a particular diagnosis, potential voters may need materials and even the voting process itself, to be adapted to improve accessibility. “There’s a lot of stuff about the candidates out there, but not every person can read. Educate us on the candidates, what is important to them, why it’s important to vote, and then maybe people would want to vote,” says Michelle. Coleen, another self-advocate agrees, “Tablets, iPads, smartboards, even if they have a picture book to show them how to use machines – You just have to be comfortable when you vote. You just can’t go in and rush through it, you have to take your time and be patient when you vote.”
It is clear that a person’s method of communication has a direct impact on voting. Analysis indicates that 92% of those who responded in the interview that they exercise their voting rights, utilize verbal or spoken communication. In comparison, people who use face or body expressions are four times less likely to exercise voting rights, while people who use sign language are six times less likely
The advocates in our follow-up discussions highlighted the significance of taking action to ensure that different communication methods don’t have a significant impact on voting. “We actually started an advocacy group for people who can’t speak. We teach them to learn sign language, and learn how to ‘speak’ the way they speak,” says Coleen, adding “Show them with sign language or braille, and it will be easier for them to learn how to use machines and understand their ballots.”
When it comes to decision-making authority, people who are their own guardians are two times more likely to exercise their voting rights, in comparison to those who have a designated guardian. In total, 35% of those who are exercising voting rights are participating in independent decision-making.
There would seem to be an understandable connection between the independence of the voter, and the likelihood of participating in voting. “I know from experience. Someone that I know doesn’t vote because her family got upset with her because of someone she voted for. If the person says that they don’t like the person that you like, just respect that. Understand their reason for it, why that’s who they like and just respect it,” states Michelle. “If you’re your own guardian, you have the right to choose who you want to. And nobody can tell you what to do and who to vote for,” adds Coleen.
Residence Type and Size
Overall, the data tells us that as the number of people living in a home increases, the likeliness of voting decreases. When it comes to the type of residency, those who live in a family home are two times as likely to vote, whereas those who live in a state-operated Intermediate Care Facility for People with Developmental Disabilities (ICF/DD), are eight times less likely to exercise their voting rights.
While this study was not focused on issues that contribute to the effect of residency type and size on voting, some potential areas for further explanation could be a lack of individualized supports, staffing issues, decreased natural supports and others.
“Lately there are a lot of shortages in staff, and transportation is always an issue. They might not be able to bring people to the voting places to vote,” states Coleen. Michelle adds to this, “Maybe not everyone is able to walk down to the polling place, so they rely on others to get them there. If there’s not enough staff to take them, then they’re not going to even be able to go.”
Barriers, Supports and Organizations
In our analysis, we discovered the critical role that agencies play in improving outcomes related to voting rights. Proactive approaches such as identifying barriers to fair treatment, recognizing priorities with rights and providing needed supports double the likelihood of someone exercising voting rights.
The advocates we talked to agreed, and provided a framework for how supports have helped them. “We did a training and we actually had one of the machines there, and the people who work with the voting machines took us through how it works. They came and taught us how to fill out the ballot and the paperwork, and how to use the machine the right way,” states Coleen.
“My agency, we take time to have a voter registration day. Those who want to register, can register. We have trainings on voting and the importance of voting. Maybe agencies can give people packets on the candidates, so everyone can be educated on it,” suggests Michelle.
Before The Ballots Are Cast and Beyond
The 2016 election will have an impact on human services, regardless of which candidate wins. As the field has made substantial shifts under the Medicaid Home and Community-Based Services settings rule, this election will play an important role in how this shift plays out into the future. As each candidate running for president has noted, “Every vote counts.” It is important that the vote of individuals with disabilities not be discredited by the populous. According to a study in USA Today, in 2016, the number of people with disabilities eligible to vote will surpass the number of eligible Black and Latino voters. However, electoral rhetoric has, for the most part, failed to shine the light on this group, disregarding, at times, the role individuals with disabilities play in shaping the future of the United States.
For many with disabilities, they have already done their research, formed their opinions of local, state and federal policy, candidates, and determined how they will cast their vote in this election. For others, there is a need to provide additional support to ensure barriers are lifted so votes can be counted and voices can be heard. The role of support staff in the election period can shift to ensuring those receiving supports have access to the information they need to make decisions, at times, helping to talk through policies and candidate views, and most frequently helping to ensure adequate transportation to voting locations come November 8. Supporting individuals in the voting process is supporting their right to be heard.
Harry Truman once said “There is some risk involved in action, there always is. But there is far more risk in failure to act.” It is our right to vote, to be heard, to speak up and speak out. CQL joins other national disability and non-disability groups to encourage all eligible voters (those with disabilities, Direct Support Professionals, provider agency administrators) to vote. As Truman said, failing to act is the greater risk.
As we head into the final weeks and days before people head to the polls, this data brief and article can serve as a jumping off point for discussion among advocates and provider agencies. You can use it as a reference for more in-depth exploration of how to improve voting-related outcomes within the human services system. After election day, let your Personal Outcome Measures® interviews drive discovery to equip others to be more active in exercising voting rights, both in the national and local arena.
“Keep up with it after the elections. Try and be involved in your local government, like be a part of your city council, and then you know what’s going on,” encourages Coleen, adding “It’s important for you to speak up for yourself.”