It’s safe to say that at the height of the 2020 pandemic, as the world adjusted to new normals, social distancing, and Zoom calls, traditional voter engagement had to evolve. And while many of us are eager to put the last year behind us, there are still valuable lessons to learn. So we sat with Jack Rosen, National Disability Rights Network Voter Engagement Specialist, to talk about the biggest lesson his organization learned.

Q: When it comes to voter registration work, what lessons did NDRN learn in 2020 in reaching their communities that others could learn from in 2021?

A: When it comes to accessibility, the pandemic showed us that a better world is possible. For all the bad of the pandemic, and there was a lot of bad, we did see that the voting process, from registration to casting your ballot, can be wildly more accessible than it had been in the past. 

We saw numerous states make their absentee ballot applications screen reader accessible for the first time, which meant that voters who are blind or have low vision were able to apply for their ballot privately and independently just like everyone else. We saw the adoption of drop boxes and mobile voting centers — something, that when done right, can be a boon to many Americans with disabilities who lack easy access to transportation or who have polling places that unfortunately are not fully ADA compliant. We saw candidates releasing videos with American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation, something that years ago was virtually unheard of. So, the biggest lesson learned for us was in many senses that what we’ve been asking for, what we’ve been demanding, accessibility is not only possible but achievable. So I’d tell other groups, make sure the content you’re putting out to encourage voting is accessible too. Use tools like WAVE to make sure it is  

Q: What is something crucial but widely unknown or misunderstood about the community you serve that those looking to engage with should know?

A: We are the biggest voting bloc you’ve not heard about! 20% of voters either have a disability or live in a household with someone who does. Out of the 234 million eligible voters in 2020, about 38.3 million were people with disabilities.  That’s a larger potential bloc than both the Latino and African-American communities (though, of course, there is significant overlap.) If a candidate didn’t have an agenda outlining what they’d do for African Americans or Latinos, we’d rightfully say that they aren’t a serious candidate and are ignoring vast swaths of voters. But when candidates or organizations that engage voters don’t have positions on disability issues, it’s treated as par for the course. And it’s absurd when you consider that between the state and federal government, billions of dollars are spent on disability services every year. So when they don’t have a disability platform, not only are they ignoring our voters, but they demonstrate a fundamental ignorance about the government they seek to shape. Our issues are seen as niche when the truth is they are common and one way or another will impact most Americans at some point in their lives.

That is why it is so important to educate not just voters, but politicians. And it is why NDRN is proud to partner with American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), Self Advocates Becoming Empowered (SABE), National Federation of the Blind (NFB), and some great researchers from Rutgers University to put together a disability voting research summit. The event is going to be live-streamed on September 14 and will be an opportunity to learn all about the disability community, the challenges we face as voters, and what issues are important to us. While we don’t have any registration links yet, the event will be streamed live and open to the public. You can follow us on Twitter @NDRNAdvocates for updates. 

Q: Are there topics, ballot measures, etc. in 2021 or 2022 that the community you serve either needs to know about or is charged to vote on?

A: I think to bring things back to my earlier point about not taking a step back, that is perhaps what my community is most energized about in 2021. Let me be clear: voting was more accessible in 2020 than it ever had been before for folks with disabilities. It helped increase turnout and lower the rate of reported problems when casting a ballot. But in the face of this unparalleled success, legislatures in numerous states are actively trying to make it harder to vote.

The truth is, these bills are voter suppression by a thousand speed bumps. If the government puts a speed bump on the road you take to work you might think “oh this will improve safety.” If they put two or three you might think “this is inconvenient, but I guess it is keeping everyone safe on the road.” But by the time they’ve put up a dozen you have to ask yourself “do they not want me on this road?” And that is what these bills do. They make it harder and harder for folks, particularly people of color and those with disabilities, to vote to the point where they want folks to give up on trying.

But our community isn’t giving up. We are going to keep contacting our legislators to stand against bad bills that take away our rights. We are going to keep fighting to protect the accessibility gains that have been made. And no matter what roadblocks they try to put up, we are going to keep voting.