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The State of Political Participation of People with Disabilities in America: A Denial to the Rights

Imagine going to a restaurant and being told that due to the color of your skin or due to your nationality, that you may not enter the premises. Moreover, imagine being told that you have to return in two months before further conversation may be continued about your denial into the premises, and that after two months, the restaurant owner has the right to take an additional four months before allowing you into the restaurant.

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Now what if I told you that the U.S. House of Representatives has just passed a bill that legalizes such an above-mentioned reality to happen and that most major news organizations and prime time shows were either unaware or made the decision not to report on such a bigoted proposal?

Indeed, such a bill has just been passed by the House for the largest minority group in the country – people with disabilities (PWDs).

In February 2018, the House passed HR620 [1], a bill that if codified into law, will give businesses the right to make people with disabilities wait up to six months to receive any accommodations and accessibility [2] - which means that if the newly opened diner down your block or your local clinic has stairs leading up to it making it inaccessible for a wheelchair user, and all it takes is two days to install an inexpensive ramp to make it accessible, HR620 will make it legal for the owner to in essence tell that wheelchair user to come back in 180 days.

Many in the disability rights community note that HR 620 will drastically weaken protections PWDs have under the American with Disabilities Act. And while most may not have heard of such a bill, the disability rights community has been unanimously and diligently fighting against it since its proposal in 2017 [3] – an example of how the voices of disabled Americans are once again ignored.

The 11th Session of the States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities recently convened - with day three marking a round table on the state of political participation of PWDs. And akin to most other countries, the U.S. has much work to do to ensure that people with disabilities have full rights to political participation - and equal rights in general.

I wish I could say that the passage of HR620 by the House was a one-off occurrence of how the rights of people with disabilities are denied in politics or policy making, but the truth is that people with disabilities are consistently blocked from participating in the political process and from contributing to policies that affect society.

photo credit: Mark Garten | UN Photo Media Gallery

From inaccessible voting stations [4] making it next to impossible for many PWDs to vote [5], to an under-representation in disabled candidates for public office [6], to studies showing that elected officials often do not conduct outreach to disabled voters [7], to negative portrayals of PWDs in the media [8], to a lack of coverage of disability related issues in the news [9], the message society sends through the political system to PWDs is clear: the voices, opinions, experiences, and overall participation of PWDs in the political process, and subsequently in society, are negligible.

As policy effects society, a denial to people with disabilities from participating in all stages of the political and policy-making process means that the voice of and subsequent needs of people with disabilities are overlooked – which means PWDs will inevitably have a more arduous experience in society, which further poses as a barrier to the political participation of persons with disabilities.

The numbers speak for themselves:

According to recent studies, the labor force participation rate amongst active job seekers with disabilities stands at 20% compared to the 69% labor force participation rate amongst active job seekers without disabilities [10]. Due to a law from 1938, it is still legal for employers to pay PWDs sub-minimum wages – at times as low as two cents an hour [11] – and many employers still do [12]. Studies show that while PWDs make up 16% of the U.S. population, PWDs make up 40% of the homeless population [13]. In education, recent studies show that the rate of college graduation for people with disabilities is about half that of people without disabilities [14] – and the list goes on.

It should be no surprise that there is a correlation between the lack of political participation for PWDs and the current state of the rights of PWDs in America – if people with disabilities are consistently denied a seat at the table, and if the means of attaining a seat at the table is also denied to persons with disabilities, it should be no wonder that policies and laws are continually codified with zero thought to the specific realities faced by PWDs – leading to such disparities as outlined.

Any solutions going forward must not only prioritize the rights of people with disabilities, but must also consider such multi-facetted dynamics of political participation as discussed.


[1] American Civil Liberties Union. “HR 620 – Myths and Truths About the ADA Education and Reform Act”. Accessed June 24, 2018.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Seth McBride. “Passage of H.R. Sparks Outrage in Disability Community”. New Mobility, February 16, 2018.

[4] Shaun Heasley. “Most Polling Places Inaccessible During 2016 Election, Report Finds”. Disability Scoop, November 2, 2017.

[5] National Center on Disability and Journalism. “Covering Disability Issues and Elections”. October 25, 2016.

[6] Robyn Powell. “People with Disabilities Are ‘Severely Underrepresented in Elected Office’ – These Candidates Hope to Change That”. Rewire News, May 31, 2018.

[7] Robert Silverstein. “Anatomy of Change: The Need for Effective Disability Policy Change Agents”. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation 91, no. 2 (2010): 173-77.

[8] United Nations Enable. “Disability and the Media”. Accessed June 24, 2018.

[9] National Center on Disability and Journalism. “Covering Disability Issues and Elections”.

[10] Randy Rutta. “25 Years Later, People with Disabilities Push for Economic Equality”. The Huffington Post, October 19, 2015.

[11] U.S. Department of Labor. “Employment Laws Assistance for Workers and Small Businesses”.

[12] Rex Huppke. “Many Workers with Disabilities Are Paid Sub-Minimum Wage”. The Chicago Tribune, February 10, 2014.

[13] National Health Care for the Homeless Council. “Disability, Employment, and Homelessness 2011 Policy Statement”. Accessed June 24, 2018.

[14] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “People with a Disability Less Likely to Have Completed a bachelor’s Degree”., July 20, 2015.

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