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

What it was like to vote while disabled 50 years ago, compared to now.

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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Whenever someone's words or behavior are called out as racist, a few predictable responses always follow. One is to see the word "racist" as a vicious personal attack. Two is to vehemently deny that whatever was said or done was racist. And three is to pull out the dictionary definition of racism to prove that the words or behavior weren't racist.

Honestly, as soon as someone refers to the dictionary when discussing racism, it's clear that person has never delved deeply into trying to understand racism. It's a big old red flag, every time.

I'm not an expert on race relations, but I've spent many years learning from people who are. And I've learned that the reality of racism is nuanced and complex, and resorting to a short dictionary definition completely ignores that fact. The dictionary can't include all of the ways racism manifests in individuals and society, and the limitations of dictionary definitions make it a poor tool for discussing the topic.

Since "racism" is such a loaded term for many people, let's look at such limitations through a different complex word. Let's take "anxiety." According to Merriam-Webster, "anxiety" is defined as "apprehensive uneasiness or nervousness, usually over an impending or anticipated ill."

Now imagine thinking that you understand everything that encompasses anxiety from reading that dictionary definition. Imagine thinking you could recognize the signs of anxiety in someone based on that definition alone. Ridiculous, right? The dictionary doesn't explain that some people's anxiety manifests as anger, even though it does. It doesn't say that anxiety sometimes manifests as withdrawal or aloofness. It doesn't say that you often won't see obvious signs of fear or nervousness in someone experiencing anxiety.

The dictionary doesn't offer anything close to the reality of what anxiety is or looks like. It would be silly to say that someone isn't experiencing anxiety because they're not clearly showing signs of nervousness like the dictionary definition implies. Just as the dictionary definition of anxiety is not comprehensive, neither is the dictionary definition of racism. Yet people keep using it to "prove" that something or someone isn't racist.

Fox News analyst Brit Hume just pulled that trick on Twitter to try to back up his claim that Donald Trump's "go back to" statements to four Congresswomen of color weren't technically racist.


The first Merriam-Webster entry for "racism" reads "a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race."

Merriam-Webster

First of all, I'm not sure how this definition actually makes Trump's statements not racist. A belief is not always conscious, so even assuming that his racism is unconscious, a white man telling four women of color to "go back to" their countries of origin—despite three of them being born in the U.S. and the fourth being a naturalized citizen of the U.S.—is pretty objectively racist. No one knows exactly what is going on in the President's head, but such statements only being made to women of color would certainly be consistent with the behavior of someone with a belief in white people's inherent superiority.

But that simple definition isn't truly definitive, either. Shortly after Hume's tweet, Merriam-Webster pointed out a usage note for the word "racism," which clarifies that dictionaries do not provide the be-all-end-all definition of words.

Anti-racism advocates have tried time and time again to explain that racism is not as straightforward as someone saying, "I think I'm superior to people who don't share my skin color." Racism is almost never that blatant, and yet oodles of Americans refuse to call anything less than that kind of bold statement "racism." We have a long history showing exactly how white supremacy—the origin of racism in the U.S.—exerts itself in both strong and subtle ways, and thousands of hours and pages of education from experts describing how racism works on an individual and societal level. But people still insist on the simplistic narrative of "Racism=hating people of a different race."

I've seen many people, including Brit Hume, argue that the word racism has lost all meaning. Frankly, that's a copout. Racism—as both a conscious or unconscious belief of racial superiority and as a system of racial prejudice blended with power dynamics—has a broader meaning than one person hating another person for the color of their skin. But that doesn't make it meaningless.

I've also seen people complain that "everything is racist these days," but no, it's really not. We simply understand more about racism now, thanks to the field of race studies and to people of color offering their time and energy to explain it, so it's easier to identify in its various forms. In my experience, when someone's understanding of racism reaches a certain stage, they start recognizing it in places where ignorance or unconscious bias may have caused them to miss it in the past. That's not imagining racism where it doesn't exist or "calling everything racist these days"; that's simply seeing reality more clearly.

When you really dive deep into the historical, psychological, and sociological reality of racism in America, it becomes painfully obvious that racism is far more prevalent and enmeshed in our society than most people think. Until defensive, mostly-white folks stop automatically denying racism every time the word is used and stop throwing around dictionaries to avoid having to do that deep dive work, we're not going to make real headway on this issue.

Let's stop pretending that the definition and supposed overuse of the word "racism" is the problem, when the problem is racism, period.

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