Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is the President of RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization working to empower people with disabilities to achieve the American dream. She works regularly with disability organizations, national, state and local policy leaders, workforce development professionals, media, employers, philanthropists, celebrities and faith-based organizations in order to expand opportunities for people with disabilities. Mizrahi has led numerous national polls and brought significant visibility to the issues of America’s 56 million citizens with disabilities. She is the co-author of a major toolkit on best practices on employment for people with disabilities and frequently hosts webinars on this topic. Mizrahi has published dozens of op-eds and publications on disability issues, including in USA Today, Huffington Post, The Hill and other publications. Dyslexic herself, she also knows what it means to parent a child with multiple disabilities. Reach her at JenniferM@RespectAbilityUSA.org.
Day one of the Conservative Political Action Conference, the biggest confab of conservative political activists, was underway. As a non-partisan political junkie, I was there. I was just feet away from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), as they gave their speeches to standing ovations of thousands of conservatives. However, for all the enthusiasm in the room, disability issues alone show that if things don’t change, the Republicans are doomed to fail in their election goals yet again. Indeed, policies for people disabilities were completely absent from the speeches of Rubio, Paul and others at CPAC gathering.
While Republicans such as Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) and former Sen. Bob Dole (R-KS) have disabilities, and Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX), Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), former Gov. Sarah Palin and others have children with disabilities, Republican grassroots activists and speakers at CPAC seem to have forgotten both this large demographic group and the proud Republican history with enabling people with disabilities to achieve the American dream.
Instead, as CPAC speakers and activists look towards the future, they are overly focused on the last election. Not only did yesterday’s headliners, Rubio and Paul, fail to mention disability issues, the CPAC session on inclusion touched on Hispanics, Asians and African Americans but did not cover people with disabilities, either. Pollster and commentator Dick Morris went through a list of demographics that he stated are important to Republicans. That list did not include people with disabilities. Nor did any of the booths in the large exhibit area.
Yet more Americans have a disability than are African American, Hispanic, Asian or gay, and polling shows it is a swing voter group. According to the U.S. Census, 20 percent of Americans have a disability. Additionally, according to a poll conducted jointly by my firm, Laszlo Strategies, and Stan Greenberg/GQRR of 1000 likely voters, fully 51 percent report having a family member or close friend with a disability. Fifty-two percent of Democrats report that they or a loved one has a disability and for Republicans a smaller number of 44 percent who report they have a disability. Surprisingly, Independents have the largest number of voters who say they have disabilities, with 58 percent saying yes. This shows that swing voters with disabilities and their families are up for grabs.
There are a huge number of issues that impact people with disabilities that resonate with Republican primary voters, but aren’t even on the politicians’ radar screens. For example, approximately 90 percent of American women who find out they are carrying a child with Down Syndrome chooses to abort. People with disabilities can fall victim to others (including family members and supposed “care takers”) who push them into “assisted suicide”/euthanasia. At times people with disabilities are denied access to needed organ transplants due to the prejudice that their lives are less worthy than those of people without disabilities. These “pro-life” issues matter to CPAC activists and many disability activists alike. Additionally, many parents of children with disabilities, who often face large medical and other costs, want vouchers so that their children can attend private schools with additional supports for children with disabilities.
More evidence of the opportunity Republicans are wasting on disability issues: When poll respondents were asked whether they think the government should be doing more to help people with disabilities, 54 percent of Democrats said yes, while only 33 percent of Republicans did.
Employment issues are more low-hanging fruit the GOP isn’t plucking. America’s most important civil rights legislation for people with disabilities, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), was introduced by Republicans during the Reagan Administration and signed into law by President George H.W. Bush. However, since the ADA was passed more than two decades ago, the percentage of people with disabilities in the workforce has not improved by even 1 percent.
Approximately 70 percent of working-age adults with disabilities are now unemployed. Moreover, while Democrats have attacked Republicans regarding potential cuts to disability benefits, little has been offered by either party to help by providing a hand up, and not just a handout. The majority of working age voters with disabilities want to work and be independent. A Government Accounting Office report released this summer talked about how numerous federal government programs to help on employment issues fail to measure or deliver success, or coordinate or collaborate with each other successfully.
And during President Barack Obama’s first term in office, unemployment for Americans with disabilities skyrocketed. The number of people collecting federal disability insurance has increased by 1,385,418 to a record 8,827,795, meaning a larger strain to the Federal coffers and more people with disabilities living in poverty. People with disabilities are looking for new answers and policies.
The majority of likely American voters are experiencing the challenges of living with a disability, either because they have a disability or have a loved one who does. It impacts voting, and elected officials and candidates need to pay attention. It is surprising to see a major convention that is focused on winning future elections completely fail to address any of the concerns of this large number of voters. But then again, these guys already know something about losing.