Representative Democracy Requires Inclusion of All Abilities

Disabled women represent only 2.9 percent of all elected officials and a whopping 16.1 percent of U.S. women.

A Close the Camps protest outside an ICE facility San Francisco in 2019 invited “all fat people, all disabled people, all seniors … and anyone who has experienced being separated, shut away, controlled, disposed of, incarcerated in prisons, nursing homes, fat camps, psych institutions, or generally told they are the problem for society’s woes to unite in solidarity 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, providing legal avenues for access to spaces and opportunities for those with disabilities. Yet 31 years after this historic law was passed, American women with disabilities continue to fight for an equal voice and opportunities for representation.

According to recent research, in 26 states, there is no known disabled person elected at the local, state or national level. More concerning, women with disabilities are elected in only 15 states. In fact, disabled women represent only 2.9 percent of all elected officials, while 16.1 percent of U.S. women are disabled. As organizations and leaders advocate to increase women’s political leadership, it is imperative that we include women from diverse backgrounds and experiences in this work. Our government and society need women with different lived experiences to be active members of decision-making bodies.

The ReflectUS Coalition and its members have been working towards this goal for various communities of women, including disabled women. Recently, ReflectUS Coalition members RepresentWomen and She Should Run have worked directly on this important issue through research and training opportunities.

ReflectUS Coalition member RepresentWomen recently released a report, “Intersectional Disempowerment: Exploring Barriers for Disabled Female Political Candidates in the United States.” In this report, they found that disabled women continue to be underrepresented in political leadership. Among disabled elected officials, 8.3 percent are women, while 11.4 percent are men. This means that when people from the disabled community are elected, they are more often men. Consequently, the intersectional barriers of being a disabled woman are often underrepresented.

In order to increase disabled women’s political leadership, RepresentWomen found that there are three areas where work needs to be focused:

  1. addressing accessibility barriers,
  2. addressing attitude barriers, and
  3. addressing institutional barriers.

With regard to accessibility, RepresentWomen found that by addressing accessibility barriers, the resulting public policy that develops not only becomes more accessible for those with disabilities, but also increases accessibility for others who may not experience the disability. For instance, the RepresentWomen report discusses curb cutouts for wheelchairs. When curb cutouts were installed for those with physical disabilities, it increased access to sidewalks for everyone like parents pushing strollers, bicyclists and people who have difficulty with steps. Previously, people would adapt to the limitations of public sidewalk design, but curb cutouts provided enduring accessibility  for the entire community. The success of the curb cutout policy also assisted in changing the public’s attitude around issues impacting disabled community members.

Regarding attitude barriers, the report highlights the importance of continuing to confront the social stigmas associated with being a disabled woman candidate. When women face questions about their qualifications due to their disability status, these questions cause harm and must be addressed. Political party leaders need to directly challenge these stereotypes and make it clear that ableism will not be tolerated in campaigns. Working to dismantle ableism will take time and intentional focus.

With respect to institutional barriers, the ReflectUS Coalition recognizes the power appointments have in addressing gender imbalances in political leadership. For instance, intentional appointments of women with disabilities will increase their political leadership. As the RepresentWomen report highlights, executive administrations and local governments responsible for appointments must make a commitment to inclusive representation. Political parties can reduce gatekeeping by openly recruiting more disabled women to run for office, working with disabled peoples’ organizations, and securing funds for disabled women candidates.

In addition to research and reporting, ReflectUS Coalition member She Should Run has been advocating for disabled women in a number of ways. In particular, they have been working to ensure campaigns are accessible to disabled community members. They have partnered with National Council on Independent Living (NCIL) to further this work.

In a published blog, She Should Run and NCIL discussed the importance of candidates connecting with local disability communities. They stressed the expertise of disabled people and the need to involve more disabled people in all campaigns. She Should Run recently provided training with NCIL to discuss how ableism is keeping the U.S. from equal representation.

Additionally, She Should Run is working around:

  1. advocacy for centering disabled women as experts in the field,
  2. leadership development opportunities for candidates from a wide range of disability statuses, and
  3. partnerships with organizations that provide specific resources for disabled candidates—all towards the goal of empowering disabled women in political leadership.

When disabled women are at decision-making tables, they give voice to the importance of access for all people. As the work of RepresentWomen and She Should Run illustrate, there are solutions to the challenges facing disabled women and their political leadership.

In a society based on the principle of representative democracy, our institutions must be accommodating of all communities in order to truly be reflective of the citizenry. Hence, when disabled women are present to confront the barriers they face, change is not only possible, but inevitable.

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About , and

Tiffany Gardner is the CEO of ReflectUS. ReflectUS is a national, nonpartisan coalition working to increase the number of women in office and achieve equal representation across the racial, ideological, ethnic, and geographic spectrum.
Erin Loos Cutraro is the founder and CEO of She Should Run. She Should Run is a member of the ReflectUS Coalition, a national coalition that accelerates and maximizes the collective impact of the people and organizations working for political leadership of, by, and for all women.
Cynthia Richie Terrell is the founder and executive director of RepresentWomen and a founding board member of the ReflectUS coalition of non-partisan women’s representation organizations. Terrell is an outspoken advocate for innovative rules and systems reforms to advance women’s representation and leadership in the United States. Terrell and her husband Rob Richie helped to found FairVote—a nonpartisan champion of electoral reforms that give voters greater choice, a stronger voice and a truly representative democracy. Terrell has worked on projects related to women's representation, voting system reform and democracy in the United States and abroad.