The growing clout of voters with disabilities
People with disabilities are more politically aware and active than ever before. Three-quarters of a million people in Illinois are persons with disabilities, striving for independence and integration into society, and scrutinizing your campaign to see whether you are worthy of their support this fall.
As the state makes its polling places accessible, this new bloc of voters is becoming a force in political life. They have watched the progress made by minorities and women in the political arena, and they have similar expectations. By organizing and networking they have learned that numbers equal votes equal clout.
Persons with disabilities should not be taken for granted. They maintain champions on both sides of the aisle. So candidates who view them casually do so at their own risk. Expect them to ask about jobs, housing, transportation and civil rights for people with disabilities.
Generally speaking, persons with disabilities have low incomes, inadequate housing and difficulty in accessing transportation. The average voter with a disability is four times as likely as a person without disabilities to make less than $10,000 annually.
While people with disabilities still face many barriers in our society, perhaps the greatest barrier to full integration is unemployment. People with disabilities have the highest unemployment rate of any demographic group. In fact, their unemployment rate is between 60 and 70 percent.
A bill now in Congress, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), is viewed as a litmus test of commitment on the rights of millions of Americans. Simply put, the bill makes it illegal to discriminate against a person because of physical or mental disabilities. Because of the Human Rights Act, already a part of Illinois law, ADA offers little new protection to Illinoisans. But it deserves our support because it extends to all Americans the rights that Illinoisans now enjoy. It simply isn't fair that an Illinoisan loses certain rights by crossing the state line to a bordering state.
Access to education is changing the role of persons with disabilities. Public Law 94-142 mandated that children with disabilities be educated in the least restrictive environment. Now they and their parents expect and advocate for equal access beyond the school arena in the world of work.
Happily, businesses are rapidly opening new employment opportunities to persons with disabilities. Employers have learned that persons with disabilities are reliable, hard-working and a very real answer to the upcoming national labor shortage. Employment has provided the self-esteem, social exposure and the financial wherewithal necessary for some persons with disabilities to become more active participants in society.
Employment has also provided for new outlooks. The 30-year-old man who uses a wheelchair and makes $28,000 a year in private industry will undoubtedly view a candidate's statement on taxes differently than if he were unemployed and reliant on state and/or federal assistance.
Your commitment will not be judged solely by promises you make, but also on your record and your campaign. If the message you want to send is that you care about issues of importance to people with disabilities, you also must make it clear that you care about people with disabilities.
The most tangible way to show you care is to make sure that persons with disabilities can be involved in your campaign. How? By making your campaign accessible to them. Can a deaf person call you on the phone and communicate? Can a person in a wheelchair get into your headquarters? Can your position papers be read by blind voters? Do your campaign committees or advisory groups include people with disabilities as working members or volunteers?
By having a Telephone Device for the Deaf (TDD) on your office phone for deaf people to communicate with you. by having a sign language interpreter available at campaign speeches, by having a headquarters that is ramped, by Brailling material and by actively recruiting people with disabilities, you can send a powerful message to this bloc of voters that you understand their desire to be part of the mainstream of American political and governmental life.
Don't assume people with disabilities aren't going to vote for you simply because of your party affiliation. For many people a candidate's responsiveness to disability issues overrides party affiliation. While a 1988 Harris poll showed 52 percent of voters with disabilities as registered Democrats, 24 percent registered Republicans and 21 percent claiming no party affiliation, studies of the Bush/Dukakis election show that the disabled community supported George Bush by the same percentage that nondisabled voters did.
The old stereotypes of people with disabilities as "handicapped," "confined to a wheelchair" or "victim" no longer apply. Excluding people with disabilities from the mainstream of American life was wrong. Attitudes are changing. You who want to be leaders should be out front in this area.
Phil Bradley has served as director of the state's Department of Rehabilitation Services since March 1988. He has been with the agency since 1983.
34/April 1990/Illinois Issues