Midterm Elections Preview: Counties, Cities, and Towns

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Andrew Pulrang

I have never been able to maintain focus on the disability issues happening in my own home town. I’m not sure why. I guess it’s just a personal preference. The problem is that a lot happens at the local level that affects disabled people’s lives.

Disability activists have personal likes and dislikes, just like everyone else. Some prefer focusing on local matters, and find national politics and global issues distant, daunting, and intimidating. Others, like me, find local politics dirtier, more personal, and organized too much around personalities and ambitions and not enough around ideas or consistent visions for a better future. Some people feel safer dealing with local matters, where political power is muted and constrained. Others take comfort in the relative remoteness of national politics, and find local battles meaner and literally too close to home.

But disabled people can no more ignore local politics than they can shrug off who is elected to Congress or the Presidency. A lot of everyday disability issues are decided locally:

  • Town, city, and county public works and planning departments decide the quality of street and sidewalk accessibility.
  • Code enforcement officials, some professional, others less so, exercise a lot of discretion in how well they enforce building codes, including accessibility. In effect, they are the first line of ADA enforcement, whether they fully embrace the role or not.
  • Town and city councils can influence how community-wide accessibility is regarded … as a necessity and a civic asset, or as a trivial and expensive annoyance.
  • County health and social service departments set the tone for how disabled people are treated … as valuable citizens to be supported and served, or as budgetary burdens and social problems to be solved.
  • Police and sheriff’s departments interact a lot with disabled people. Their approach can vary a lot from department to department, depending not just on training, but on their philosophy of law enforcement and perceptions of who is and isn’t a threat. The consequences of mistakes and preconceived ideas about certain disabilities can be deadly.

So, what can we do? There are several approaches to choose from:

Attend local government meetings. Get to know how they work, and when the time is right, ask some questions on specific disability concerns. Examples:

  • In discussions about replacing sidewalks, ask if they will be wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs, and whether the curb ramps will be well-designed and properly placed.
  • If public events and recreation programs are on the table, ask about specific steps to ensure accessibility, such as parking availability, barrier-free entry, and accessible restrooms.

Look up who is running for local offices. Find out on their websites where they are going to meet and greet voters, and go there to see them. Introduce yourself, and ask a specific disability-related policy question. You can often meet local candidates at:

  • Fairs and festivals.
  • Events sponsored by local non-profit organizations.
  • Debates and “town hall” meetings.

Be specific about disability issues. Don’t ask candidates if they “support disability rights,” because they will all say “yes” without having to know what that even means. Ask about what they will do, not how they feel.

Also, don’t expect local candidates to know much about disability issues. Disability policy should be widely understood, but it isn’t. And local candidates usually don’t have paid or even volunteer staff who can research issues and develop complex policy stands. Try asking if they would support a specific local policy change, and gauge their general support or opposition. For example:

  • “Would you support the city taking over responsibility for clearing snow and ice from public sidewalks?”
  • “Should the City Hall restrooms be made accessible this year?”
  • “Do you support expansion of home care, even if it means less funding for nursing homes?”

Write a Letter to the Editor of your local newspaper on a specific disability issue or problem. Like most politicians, most of your neighbors are probably only vaguely familiar with practical disability issues. You might be surprised at the difference it can make for one person with a disability to share a bit of their authentic day-to-day struggles with the public.

Get to know local disability organizations, like your local Independent Living Center. Find out what they are doing in local disability activism, and offer to help.

Carefully consider your “down-ballot” votes … that is, your votes for city or town council, county legislature, and state legislature. Find out as much as you can about those local candidates before you vote on Election Day, and cast your votes for local office deliberately, with conviction.

Local offices are important, and not just for what goes on locally. If state legislatures are the Minor Leagues of American politics, then local politics is the Little League. That’s not an insult. That’s an opportunity to not only affect local, day-to-day living conditions for disabled people, but help prepare for a better informed politics in the future.

It’s also an opportunity because when it comes to local disability issues, there is literally nobody but us disabled people who can make a significant contribution. It’s got to be us, or it’s going to be nobody at all.