The disability vote counts in 2016, but it wasn’t always that way.

With all the progress that's been made in America, the "Land of Opportunity," it’s hard to believe the right to vote wasn’t always a given for everyone — including the disabled.

But if we take a look back at American history, we can see that there was a time not too long ago when people with disabilities did not have a say in any election, let alone a presidential one.

It wasn’t because of someone’s personal beliefs against voting, or even religious beliefs. There were simply no laws in place for the disabled to make their voices heard, which caused a longstanding battle of discrimination and prejudice. In fact, people within the disabled community were (and still are) often denied the right to vote despite steps being taken to grant them that right.


Photo via iStock

In the 1960s, the disabled community got real about prejudice during the disability rights movement.

Before that, if you had a disability, you probably couldn't vote. The polls weren’t accessible.

The movement sparked radical change for more than 54 million Americans by ensuring that polling places — as well as the actual voting process — would be made accessible. This includes having ballots printed in Braille for the blind or visually impaired.

I have cerebral palsy and use a motorized wheelchair, so I’m one of those 54 million people who can now vote more easily.

I’m not ashamed or embarrassed to be a statistic in this demographic because it’s a group that often has to fight a little harder for what they want and what they believe in.

I’m also not ashamed to say I’ve voted before. In fact, it was one of the first things I did when I came of age. My older brother went with me to help, and at this particular time, I didn’t have my motorized chair. I just had my manual one that I use in case of an emergency or if I’m going somewhere for a short period of time.

Photo via iStock.

My brother lifted me (and my chair) out of the car and pushed me into our local polling place. The room was fairly large, and there was a woman waiting at a table to check my voter registration card as we came in the door. I pulled the card out of my wallet and showed it to her.

“It says here you’re 18?” She asked immediately (because I didn’t look 18).

“Yes ma’am,” I replied.

My age caught her off guard, but I could tell by the surprised look on her face and her body language that my chair did, too. I don’t know which one surprised her more, but I wasn’t really bothered by it. I’m used to getting that reaction from people, and I understand it’s part of having a disability.

For the most part, voting for the first time was a hassle-free experience for me — except the booth was almost too high for me to reach from my chair.

It made for some difficulties, but I decided not to make a big deal out of it because it wasn’t a matter of someone doing that on purpose to prevent me from voting. It was minor compared to some of the challenges I’ve faced in my life. If anything, I was just proud to cast my vote.

For me, voting for the first time mattered because it made me feel like I was a part of something bigger than myself.

This year, disabled Americans will be turning out in droves to vote, given Donald Trump’s blatant mockery of disabled folks. That means it’s even more important for every voting booth to be accessible.  

In fact, according to the American Association of People with Disabilities, people with disabilities will account for about one-sixth of eligible voters in the 2016 election — 34.6 million people.

In 2016, there will be 62.7 million eligible voters who either have a disability or live with someone who has a disability, more than one-fourth of the total electorate. And in 2012, 56.8% of people with disabilities voted, compared to 62.5% of people without disabilities.

Photo via iStock.

This election will be a milestone not just because of its magnitude, but also because of what it represents, as well as what’s at stake. And for the first time, I think people with disabilities will be on a level playing field like never before.  

Changes have been made to include the disabled community in voting, and that is a huge step forward.

But our progress can’t — and won’t — stop there. If we have something to say, Nov. 8, 2016, is the time to say it.

It’s our chance to counteract the embarrassment that Trump has inflicted on so many people with disabilities and to start righting some wrongs, too.

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Shanda Lynn Poitra was born and raised on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in Belcourt, North Dakota. She lived there until she was 24 years old when she left for college at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.

"Unfortunately," she says, "I took my bad relationship with me. At the time, I didn't realize it was so bad, much less, abusive. Seeing and hearing about abusive relationships while growing up gave me the mentality that it was just a normal way of life."

Those college years away from home were difficult for a lot of reasons. She had three small children — two in diapers, one in elementary school — as well as a full-time University class schedule and a part-time job as a housekeeper.

"I wore many masks back then and clothing that would cover the bruises," she remembers. "Despite the darkness that I was living in, I was a great student; I knew that no matter what, I HAD to succeed. I knew there was more to my future than what I was living, so I kept working hard."

While searching for an elective class during this time, she came across a one-credit, 20-hour IMPACT self-defense class that could be done over a weekend. That single credit changed her life forever. It helped give her the confidence to leave her abusive relationship and inspired her to bring IMPACT classes to other Native women in her community.

I walked into class on a Friday thinking that I would simply learn how to handle a person trying to rob me, and I walked out on a Sunday evening with a voice so powerful that I could handle the most passive attacks to my being, along with physical attacks."

It didn't take long for her to notice the difference the class was making in her life.

"I was setting boundaries and people were either respecting them or not, but I was able to acknowledge who was worth keeping in my life and who wasn't," she says.

Following the class, she also joined a roller derby league where she met many other powerful women who inspired her — and during that summer, she found the courage to leave her abuser.

"As afraid as I was, I finally had the courage to report the abuse to legal authorities, and I had the support of friends and family who provided comfort for my children and I during this time," she says.

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