Commentary: Why are women with disabilities so under-represented in American politics?

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Today, 25 percent of American adults have some type of disability, and the disability community continues to grow. Research has shown that the number of eligible voters with disabilities increased by more than 10% between 2008 and 2016. Over the past decades, the United States has passed numerous bills supporting fair voter access and signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. . Despite this, the number of politicians with disabilities is staggeringly low at 10 percent of U.S. elected officials sampled.

Senator Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., Is one of only three women among the 13 disabled federal government employees. Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune via TNS

Women with disabilities are even more invisible. Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that disability is more common among women than men, women with disabilities experience about double the rate of electoral under-representation than their male counterparts. Why?

RepresentWomen’s latest report answers this question and identifies many structural barriers that prevent people with disabilities from participating in American politics.

A 2017 report from the Government Accountability Office found that 60% of the 178 polling stations assessed had one or more barriers for voters with disabilities. This means that, as the number of eligible disabled voters increases, they cannot exercise their right to vote due to issues such as the lack of a wheelchair ramp, elevator or attendants. ballot trained in accessible voting materials. This has serious negative repercussions on their electoral representation.

The high unemployment rate within the disabled community (82.1% in 2020) and low socio-economic status is a significant barrier for applicants with disabilities. The high cost of American political campaigns can often deter people with disabilities from considering running for office in the first place. Political parties even use these financial constraints to justify inaccessibility rather than removing the institutional barriers faced by candidates with disabilities. As a result, candidates with disabilities can become alienated from their political parties. They will often have to cover accessibility costs themselves, forcing them to rely on informal support, withdraw from key events, or both.

Women with disabilities face additional and unique barriers related to their ‘intersectional disempowerment,’ a term coined by scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw which means that women with disabilities face discrimination based on their disability and gender barriers. such as skill bias, distorted media coverage, and male advantage. Many also experience more layers of difficulty related to their intersectional identities, such as race barriers. Then it becomes less surprising that of the 13 disabled federal government employees, only three are women.

So, how can we improve the elected representation of people with disabilities and more particularly of women with disabilities? Our report believes that political parties are essential custodians of elective mandates, but their insufficient engagement with voters and candidates with disabilities has contributed to the under-representation of the disability community. To reduce the persistent turnout gap between voters with and without disabilities, the political under-representation of the disability community, and the gender gap within that under-representation, our report suggests a myriad of measures to be taken. take by political parties, such as accessibility funds and recruiting quotas.

Voters, candidates and public servants with disabilities deserve an equal right to political representation – let’s go beyond the promise of fairness and focus on its implementation.


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