In 2016, about a dozen Muslim Americans ran for office. In 2018, that number ballooned to over 100. According to the Center for American Women and Politics, 105 women are serving in the United States Congress, over 1,800 women are in state legislatures, and 22 of the largest U.S. cities have women for mayors. An unprecedented number of women are running for office in 2018. At least 443 of them are black women. For those women, as well as for black men thinking about how to run, they can learn how to manage a campaign at the Collective PAC's "Black Campaign School." There are 559 openly LGBTQ elected officials in the U.S., and a "rainbow wave" of more than 400 more ran are running for office in 2018.
These are just a few of the efforts to train and track the political efforts of minority and marginalized (women are not a minority) groups in the U.S. But for disabled Americans, similar efforts have been slow in coming. There aren't any training schools for disabled candidates—and no one really knows how many disabled people are in office.
One in four Americans has a disability, according to the latest numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, making disabled Americans the largest minority group in the country. In 2016, one in six voters was disabled in some way. Until now, despite the size of this population and the decades of work by many groups on voting rights for people with disabilities, no one has been tracking candidates or elected officials or teaching disabled Americans how to run for office. Thanks to the efforts of Sarah Blahovec, the disability vote organizer for the National Council on Independent Living, that's beginning to change. NCIL is a cross-disability grassroots organization that coordinates independent living centers (some governmental, others not) across the country. Blahovec has spent much of 2018 working on getting more disabled people to vote and ensuring that voting booths are accessible, and she's also been building open-access databases of disabled office holders and disabled candidates. That work is just beginning, she admits, but the current database is a first step to prove that tracking this information helps and matters.
Pacific Standard reached Blahovec by phone to discuss why she started this project and how she plans its development over the next few years.
How did this database project get started?
We have five areas targeted on civic engagement: increasing registration, voter turnout, making voting accessible, advocating for election reform, [and] encouraging people with disabilities to run for elected office. The challenge [for the last one] was figuring out the state of people with disabilities in office. There's no credible data out there at any level. So this [database project] was my response. It's not a true research study, which is what I'm hoping to see at some point, but just to start getting a little bit of an idea of who's running, who's representing the disability community, who identifies as part of the disability community.
How did you collect the data?
I started that out by word of mouth, social media, finding people through the #cripthevote hashtag, and people I'd encounter in my work. We decided to publish [our findings] as an open-source database for the community, so we created a site and a form so that people can easily submit.
What have you found so far?
My spreadsheet has 100 people running this year out of, maybe, around 100,000 seats up for grabs.
So it's clear there's significant underrepresentation, but is part of the issue is just not knowing which candidates are actually disabled?
We need to identify who these people are and build awareness of [people with disabilities] as voters and as running for office. If people don't have information on people with disabilities as a voting bloc, they don't know to appeal to them as a political group, and then [the lack of attention] feeds on itself.
How well do you think you're doing identifying candidates and officials at the various levels?
Candidates at the federal level have a lot more visibility, so it's easier to track them, but they are still easy to miss; I didn't know [Florida Congressman] Brian Mast was a double amputee and a veteran until several months ago. It's difficult for a national organization to connect at the state and local level. If you're [a disabled person] running for your school board, it's less likely I'll be able to find that out. That's where it really comes in handy, having this be an open source. There's no barrier for entry.
The second phase of this project is to get more people with disabilities to run for office. How do you hope to get started on that?
We envision having Web-based trainings as boot camps for running for office and engage our networks of Centers for Independent Living to have regional trainings and have run-for-office workshops. The disability community doesn't have a program to train [people] to run for office—not just for being a disabled candidate, but all the things, like funding or hiring a campaign manager, while also being straightforward about the challenges and obstacles in an inaccessible campaign environment.
What have you learned about handling those obstacles from talking to candidates?
What makes people with disabilities a good group for public leadership is their creative and adaptable approach to access problems on campaigns. For example, a lot of folks I talked to were wheelchair users, so canvassing [door-to-door] may require volunteers to knock on the door and ask, "Will you come out to talk?" One guy had a golf cart and had volunteers who would radio to him to drive over. Another had a [portable ramp] and, if having a forum or event, would always check it out two to three days in advance and have it pre-set up. It was really good optics for his campaign, suggesting: "This guy has it together! He knows the barriers and is ready to fix it." I heard about a judge who was deaf and used CART captioning to hear cases. It's not just about campaigning, but about governance as well. People who are [typically] campaign trainers just don't have disability knowledge.
Most of the disabilities I'm seeing on your list, especially at the federal level, are physical. I'm not seeing much chronic illness or mental illness. Is that just a coincidence, or a result of the small sample size?
Mental illness is the biggest challenge. Right now is a frightening time for anybody to admit to mental illness in a public sphere without being questioned about being fit to serve. People are conflating mental illness with bad choices and a bad temperament, which isn't true. I have friends with what others might call "scary" mental illness who would serve, but would be unfairly stigmatized. People [with mental illness] either aren't running or aren't disclosing.
Speaking as someone with a chronic illness, there's not a lot of recognition in the chronic illness community that chronic illness and disability can be the same thing. It's a matter of education. It's one of the things we need to talk about with educating the public, how you identify and whether you want that label to apply to you. I put people with chronic illness on the list.
Disability can be all of these things. It's not just someone who is a chair user or a cane user or something like that. I am hoping [this database] will subtly help, as it gets out into the public, change perception. Disabled candidates are a really diverse group.
How can people help?
We want to talk to people! I am looking for public involvement in this to keep it going, and especially solicit information from candidates who might not be on the list. Even after the election, let me know if someone should have been in this database.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.