Four Tips to Increase the Disability Vote in Rural Areas

National Disability Voting Rights Week - Guest Blog - Issue 5.

The fifth guest blog post in U.S. Vote Foundation’s Disability Rights Voting Week series comes from Colleen Downs. Ms. Downs is a Disability Systems Advocate at North Country Center for Independence. She works with the Statewide Systems Advocacy Network (SSAN), which was developed to support the Independent Living movement in the development of local partnerships and coalitions to engage in community education about issues impacting people with disabilities. The overall goal is to increase knowledge and visibility about Independent Living, resulting in positive change in communities throughout New York State. Colleen is a former attorney with experience in housing and civil rights, the former head of the Accommodations Unit for Prudential Financial, and has led or consulted in the fields of Human Resources and Technology within various companies, agencies and educational institutions.

In honor of Disability Rights Voting Week, we are proud to be launching our new Resources for Voters with Disabilities initiative. As part of this initiative, U.S. Vote Foundation (US Vote) has created a state-by-state guide to empower voters with disabilities to realize US Vote’s mission: Every Citizen is a Voter. Our new initiative for voters with disabilities will help new and experienced voters navigate the continuous changes in accessibility that have resulted from the recent revisions to election law across the country.

_ _ _

It’s already challenging to increase voting in rural communities, but increasing the rural disability vote is even more difficult. While increasing voter turnout is challenging everywhere, issues specific to rural voting must be confronted to effectively implement a voting strategy in these less populated areas.

Over the course of my 25-year career working with Fortune 500 corporations, academia, law firms, and non-profits I’ve developed four successful strategies to increase the disability vote in upstate New York where I live. These strategies can be used in your rural community too.

  1. Know your region.
  2. Educate the community to broaden their concept of disability.
  3. Think small, win big.
  4. If it won’t work, don’t do it.

Know Your Region

In upstate New York, rural communities are miles apart, interspersed with small cities and a handful of private properties. Towns can be small: I grew up in a town of 1,000 people where the nearest fast-food restaurant was 40 miles away. Our region includes pockets where communications brownouts are common due to intermittent or non-existent internet access, lack of transit, poverty, and the need to a focus on just getting by. Many people are isolated and this remote living can diminish their interest or engagement in the world. This isolation can be particularly daunting for people with disabilities and contribute to an erosion of a sense of community where knowledge and actions take place. As a result, some people with disabilities experience a limited view of the world and do not see how their voice can make a difference.

The demographics of upstate New York include a sizable percentage of people with disabilities so we’ve done direct outreach to consumers and urged other service providers to invite individuals who may use their services. One way to address more rural areas is to host a community dinner with a group of local independent living community service providers. The event can be focused on local community needs, with the service providers seated at different tables, talking and eating with community members. In addition to traditional independent living services, the dinner can feature a voting booth and a fun campaign to encourage voting.

Other outreach includes setting up get-out-the-vote tables at food shelves, churches and community centers; using social media for outreach; and talking with local businesses and organizations to encourage attendance. But remember, one size doesn’t fit all: Some communities are vibrant and active, so strategies in these areas will need to be different in order to “meet people where they are at.”


Broaden the Community’s Concept of Disability

Broad public support is critical for rural coalitions to have influence. Many of us know people who do not view themselves or family members as disabled and therefore do not focus as much on disability issues and legislation. One of our strategies to increase voter turnout is to educate the community about the range of disabilities that impact them or their families and tie this to how a coalition can drive legislative change. I use this concept for most of my community outreach education activities.


Think Small, Win Big

No one wants to be told what to do, when to do it, what to believe and how to feel. This concept has expanded to how we assimilate information. One approach is to focus on “micro changes” to peoples’ beliefs: this approach can yield positive results but the change is slower.

In my region we have implemented several programs that demonstrate this idea:

One program was a beach accessibility campaign. We raised money from local businesses and organizations to donate beach wheelchairs to one of the larger local beaches. This generated a lot of publicity and was a great vehicle to put accessibility needs in the spotlight. Legislators enjoyed this publicity and used the opportunity to espouse the importance of accessibility in the community. We also solicited community input from potential users and organizations to make recommendations on the project. This built community goodwill and brought disability issues into the spotlight. We plan on using the contacts we made through the press, and our work with other organizations and individuals for our next campaign.

Another example is our on-going I VOTE BECAUSE” campaign. The simplicity and public nature of the campaign is attractive to all demographics and gives us an opportunity to expand registration and voting plans. Our outreach includes reaching out to consumers, people at tabling events, community groups and organizations that support and include people with disabilities.


If It Won’t Work, Don’t Do It

I really wanted to focus on transportation to the polls this year. Transit is a major issue for people with disabilities, and the transportation options we do have been limited in the recent past. I know transportation would make a big difference and support individuals who need accessible voting. But the reality is that we do not have the infrastructure or resources, nor do we have the liability issues worked out in order to provide transportation at this time. This is an issue that must be addressed but these complications mean doing so will not be successful.

There are also other, more traditional ways to reach voters with disabilities, such as voter registrations and education around voting access, but these strategies I’ve written about here have been successful in driving our overarching strategy. It’s never easy getting voters with disabilities to the polls, and it’s even harder in rural areas. But my experience has shown that, with the right focus, there are ways to be successful. It just takes some creativity and an understanding of local issues and needs.