JULY 15, 2016 – REV UP the Vote

The Austin Chronicle

REV UP the Vote

A local campaign aims to boost disability vote

BY Annamarya Scaccia, JULY 15, 2016

People with disabilities represented more than a fifth of the population in 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Yet, that year, only a quarter of those with disabilities voted in the general election – far less than those without a disability. Dis­abil­ity advocates say people with disabilities are less likely to vote because of persistent inaccessibility in the voting process. Now a locally based political campaign is working to change that tide.

The National Disability Voter Regi­stra­tion Week, which launched Monday, is a first-of-its-kind campaign to increase voter registration among people with disabilities in Texas and across the country. The five-day-long push is part of REV UP, a broader national initiative spearheaded by Austin-based advocacy groups that aims to boost political visibility and participation of disabled people. “The REV UP campaign is meant to show there’s such a thing as a disability vote,” said Bob Kafka, organizer for ADAPT of Texas and the Texas Dis­abil­ity Project (TDP). “We’re sending the message that we want to influence the elections [in] November.”

Launched in February, REV UP – Register, Educate, Vote, Use our Power – is a national campaign started by Austin-based nonprofits TDP and Disabil­ity Rights Texas in conjunction with the American Association of People with Disabilities and other groups across the nation. The bipartisan effort seeks to help people with disabilities register to vote, educate them about their voting rights, and engage local, state, and national political candidates on disability issues, Kafka said. So far, REV UP coalitions have formed in 15 other states and Washington, D.C.

Advocates say, historically, political candidates seldom focus on disability rights. In Austin, particularly, they say the five City Council members up for re-election (Delia Garza, Greg Casar, Don Zimmerman, Leslie Pool, and Sheri Gallo) have not directly addressed issues affecting people with disability in the city, even though their campaign priorities – housing, transportation, city spending – have a discernible impact on the disabled population, which represents over 8% of Travis County residents, according to census data.

“Voters with disabilities are one of those groups that traditionally have not been engaged by policymakers,” said Jeff Miller, policy specialist for Disability Rights Texas, a nonpartisan legal protection and advocacy agency for people with disabilities.

Among the council members, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and CMs Ora Houston and Ann Kitchen have been most supportive of issues affecting people with disabilities, Kafka said. If the other council members and those running for office want the disability vote, “they need to take positions on disability issues that will draw us to their campaign,” he added.

REV UP, along with other national efforts such as the Disability Visibility Project’s #CripTheVote and RespectAbility’s #PwDsVote social media campaigns, are challenging candidates to do just that. And with these campaigns, there has been a groundswell of attention toward disability issues and rights this election season.

“It’s not a coincidence that people with disabilities are starting to become more vocal,” Kafka told the Chronicle. “People are realizing policies are being developed and our voices aren’t heard.”

The REV UP campaign also wants to make sure people with disabilities have access to the polls come election time, said Miller. In 1999, Texas became the first state to require all polling sites to be accessible to voters with disabilities – a mandate fortified by the 2002 Help America Vote Act. But despite reforms, research shows people with disabilities still face challenges exercising their voting rights. Some polling places are ill-equipped to handle wheelchairs or other mobility devices. Others may have their only voting station equipped for people with disabilities out-of-order for the entire voting period. Or people with disabilities who didn’t apply for an exemption may be locked out of voting because their identification is unacceptable under the state’s Voter ID law.

The TDP has developed a toolkit to educate Texans with disabilities about these challenges and their voting rights. The 22-page guide has also been adopted by AAPD for use in other states.

“It’s kind of a crapshoot because people with disabilities aren’t participating,” said ADAPT of Texas organizer Stephanie Thomas. “The more people can speak up, the more it will help in the long run.”

The TDP and Disability Rights Texas kicked off the Voter Regis­tration Week last Thursday with a morning press conference at the DRT headquarters in North Austin. The Travis County voter registrar’s office also sponsored a short session that day to train volunteer deputy registrars for the REV UP campaign. Volunteer deputy registrars – or VDRs – will canvass in Travis County now until the November election to help register people with disabilities and their family members, caregivers, and advocates. VDRs can help would-be voters fill out registration forms and return them to the Travis County Tax Assessor-Collector’s Office. The last day to register to vote in the state is Oct. 11, and the last day to apply for ballot by mail is Oct. 28.

Kafka noted that REV UP is an inclusive effort, representing physical and developmental disabilities, including those not immediately apparent (commonly known as invisible disabilities), and mental illness. But the REV UP campaign extends also to family members, advocates, caregivers, and other people affected by disability issues, he added. “Disability crosscuts children, adults, and older people,” he told us.

The Texas Disability Project received proclamations recognizing Disability Voter Registration Week from Mayor Steve Adler, Travis County Commissioners Court, and Governor Greg Abbott, and City Council approved a resolution in June, which Tovo sponsored, designating July 11-15 as National Disability Voter Regis­tration Week in Austin. “Democracy works best with everybody participating,” said Tovo.

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