Disabled women make up just 2.9 percent of all elected officials and a whopping 16.1 percent of U.S. women.
A protest by Close the Camps in front of an ICE facility in San Francisco in 2019 invited “all fat people, all disabled people, all seniors … camps, psychiatric facilities or, more generally, they are the problem for the problems of society, to show solidarity to unite with migrants. “(Peg Hunter / Flickr)
Last month we celebrated Disability Pride – a time to honor difference, raise awareness, and promote visibility for disabled Americans. The Americans with Disability Act (ADA) was passed in July 1990 and provides legal access to space and facilities for people with disabilities. But 31 years after this historic law was passed, American women with disabilities continue to fight for equal voice and representation.
Recent research shows that there are no known disabled people in 26 states who have been elected locally, state or nationally. Even more worrying, women with disabilities are only elected in 15 states. In fact, disabled women make up just 2.9 percent of all elected officials, while 16.1 percent of U.S. women are disabled. As organizations and leaders work to empower women’s political leadership, it is imperative that we include women from different backgrounds and experiences in this work. Our government and society need women with different life experiences as active members in decision-making bodies.
The ReflectUS coalition and its members have worked towards this goal for various women’s communities, including disabled women. Recently, members of the ReflectUS coalition RepresentWomen and She Should Run have worked directly on this important topic through research and training opportunities.
ReflectUS coalition member RepresentWomen recently published a report entitled “Intersectional Disempowerment: Exploring Barriers for Disabled Female Political Candidates in the United States”. In this report they found that disabled women are still underrepresented in political leadership. Of the disabled elected officials, 8.3 percent are women, while 11.4 percent are men. That is, if people from the disabled community are elected, men are more likely to be elected. As a result, the intersectional barriers faced by women with disabilities are often underrepresented.
In order to strengthen the political leadership of disabled women, RepresentWomen noted that there are three areas that the work needs to focus on:
- Eliminate accessibility,
- Dealing with hiring barriers and
- address institutional barriers.
Out of 142 congressmen, only 3 have a reported disability. #DisabledWomen are severely underrepresented in US politics.
The new report from @RepresentWomen describes how we can do #RepresentDisabledWomen today! ?
– She should be running (@SheShouldRun) August 18, 2021
Regarding accessibility, RepresentWomen noted that by removing barriers to accessibility, the resulting public policies that evolve not only become more accessible to people with disabilities, but also improve accessibility for others who may not have a disability. For example, the RepresentWomen report discusses curb cutouts for wheelchairs. By installing curb cutouts for people with physical disabilities, access to sidewalks has improved for everyone such as parents pushing strollers, cyclists and people with difficulty climbing stairs. People used to adapt to the constraints of public sidewalk design, but curb cutouts provided permanent access for the entire community. The success of the curb-cutting policy also helped change public attitudes on issues affecting disabled parishioners.
Regarding hiring barriers, the report highlights the importance of continuing to face the social stigmata associated with being a disabled woman’s candidacy. When women have questions about their qualifications because of their disability status, those questions are harmful and need to be addressed. Political party leaders must question these stereotypes directly and make it clear that campaigning will not tolerate Ableism. Working to break down Ableism takes time and conscious focus.
Regarding institutional barriers, the ReflectUS coalition recognizes the power that appointments have in tackling gender imbalances in political leadership. For example, the deliberate appointment of women with disabilities will strengthen their political leadership. As the RepresentWomen report points out, the executive and local governments responsible for appointments must commit to inclusive representation. Political parties can reduce gatekeeping by openly recruiting more disabled women for candidacy, working with disability organizations, and securing funds for disabled female candidates.
In addition to research and reporting, the ReflectUS coalition member She Should Run has campaigned for disabled women in various ways. In particular, they worked to make campaigns accessible to disabled community members. They have partnered with the National Council on Independent Living (NCIL) to drive this work forward.
On a published blog, She Should Run and NCIL discussed the importance of candidates connecting with local disabled communities. They emphasized the expertise of people with disabilities and the need to involve more people with disabilities in all campaigns. She Should Run recently held a training course at NCIL to discuss how ableism is keeping the US from equal representation.
In addition, She Should Run is working on:
- Advocating centering disabled women as experts in this field,
- Leadership development opportunities for candidates with a wide range of disability status and
- Partnerships with organizations that make specific resources available to disabled candidates – all with the aim of empowering disabled women in political leadership.
When disabled women sit at the decision-making table, they give voice to the importance of access for all people. As the work of RepresentWomen and She Should Run shows, there are solutions to the challenges faced by disabled women and their political leaders.
In a society based on the principle of representative democracy, our institutions must accommodate all communities in order to truly reflect citizenship. So when disabled women are present to face the obstacles they face, change is not only possible, but inevitable.
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