Sophie Dau used a Federal Bar Association (FBA) civics essay contest as the springboard for her final project in Disability History, an elective taught by Dr. Nate Kogan ’00.
The junior aced Nate’s assignment with her paper advocating stronger voting rights for people with disabilities. On May 29, Sophie learned via email that she also aced the national contest—she won first place, and a $1,500 scholarship.
As part of Nate’s op-ed essay assignment, he encouraged students to submit their work for publication. This is a recurring theme across Rowland Hall curricula: teachers help students develop and share their voices, often publicly, to foster change—from fourth-grade letters about brine shrimp to op-eds written for Upper School English and published in local outlets such as The Salt Lake Tribune. Nate’s assignment—inspired in part by the work of University of Delaware Assistant Professor Jairpreet Virdi—is cut from a similar cloth:
“One feature of being a historian is to address current events for a public unfamiliar with historical scholarship. Write a 900–1,200 word essay in response to an issue that has made waves in the media, or in response to media misconceptions of historical facts. You are encouraged (but not required) to submit your piece for publication to popular blogs like Nursing Clio, Remedia, All of Us (the Disability History Association blog), etc., or to general interest newspapers, like The Salt Lake Tribune or Deseret News, or magazines like Slate, Vox, or The Atlantic. This assignment ideally provides good practice for grappling with the field of public history and engaging a wider audience in historical context, evidence, and analysis.”
According to the FBA, over 250 students submitted contest entries on this year’s topic: “The 19th Amendment turns 100: Why is the right to vote still important?” In addition to what she learned in Disability History, Sophie channeled her knowledge from another one of Nate’s classes: Advanced Topics US History. And as the editor of the Upper School newspaper, the Rowland Hall Gazette, Sophie is no stranger to crafting her writing for a wider audience. Her understanding of and passion for her chosen topic shines through in her words, and we congratulate Sophie on this well-deserved win.
“Not Disabled and Therefore Deserve the Vote”:
Voting Rights for People With Disabilities
By Sophie Dau
The right to vote is so fundamental that a lack of voices from one particular group leads to a lack of representation for that group both politically and socially, and therefore continues the cycle of oppression.Although the U.S. was founded as a democracy, it was a long time before most citizens truly had the right to vote, and some are still denied that privilege even though it is fundamental to maintaining a representative government. Even now, certain marginalized groups struggle to have accessibility to polls. When we tell the history of gaining the right to vote, it usually focuses on two main groups: African Americans and women. Obviously, the 15th and 19th Amendments were huge steps in increasing suffrage for all citizens, but there's another group that has been historically left out of the discussion: people with disabilities. Their stories are incredibly important because they've gone untold and their disenfranchisement unquestioned or even supported by other minorities. The right to vote is so fundamental that a lack of voices from one particular group leads to a lack of representation for that group both politically and socially, and therefore continues the cycle of oppression.
Historically, people with disabilities, especially mental ones, have been denied the right to vote. During the Antebellum period, many states specifically barred either those under guardianship or those considered insane from voting.1 Many of those laws still affect people with disabilities today. The Utah Constitution, for example, states in Article IV Section 6 that “any mentally incompetent person… may not be permitted to vote at any election.”2 One major argument for preventing people with mental disabilities from voting currently is voter fraud, where someone who assists the person votes for who they want instead. Even if that happened—which isn't likely—it's completely unfair to prevent a significant number of people from voting just for a few outlying cases. As Michelle Bishop, an advocacy specialist at the National Disability Rights Network, commented, “it’s not the person with a disability committing the crime—it’s the caretaker or family member.”3 Although voter fraud is a serious issue, it is unfair to deny someone the right to vote based on their identity just because of a crime someone else could commit; that’s not protecting someone’s rights, it’s stripping them of those rights.
The mere idea of using disability as a way to argue against expanding voting rights reflects the attitude in the U.S. that either physical or mental deviation from the norm was justification to deny the right to vote.
Even a step further, both pro- and anti-suffragists used rhetoric around disability to either argue for or against suffrage for ethnic minorities or women. As historian of disability Douglas Baynton argues, this disability rhetoric appears most prominently during the women’s suffrage movement where, for the most part, the fundamental question wasn’t if everyone regardless of gender should be able to vote, but if women were able enough to vote.4 For example, opponents of women's suffrage argued "that women had disabilities that made them incapable of using the franchise responsibly," to which suffragettes responded that "women were not disabled and therefore deserved the vote."5 Rather than attack the underlying argument that people with disabilities don't deserve to vote, suffragists denied their disability or attributed it to inequality. Supporters of suffrage for black people drew on the same underlying logic. Fredrick Douglass argued that “the true basis of rights [to vote] was the capacity of individuals.”6 The fact that even suffrage activists, who clearly want everyone to vote, accepted the premise that voting should coincide with ability shows how deeply ingrained and unquestioned the ideology that disability is grounds for disenfranchisement has been. The mere idea of using disability as a way to argue against expanding voting rights reflects the attitude in the U.S. that either physical or mental deviation from the norm was justification to deny the right to vote.
Unsurprisingly, people with disabilities have struggled to get the right to vote, and even when they do, accessibility is still an issue. The first major legislation to help with voting accessibility was the Voter Registration Act in 1993. Although originally passed to stop discrimination based on race or gender, Section 208 allows for people with "blindness, disability, or the inability to read or write" to have someone help them cast a ballot. Other laws that have improved accessibility include the Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act and the Help America Vote Act in 1984 and 2002, respectively. VAEHA requires that all federal polling locations be accessible. HAVA requires the polling locations and surrounding areas to be accessible as well as having at least one accessible machine. Both of these acts have been critiqued, though, because they only apply to federal elections and therefore don’t guarantee accessibility at a local level. Curtis Decker, executive director of the National Disability Rights Network, said in an interview with the Huffington Post that “accessibility can be especially difficult in smaller towns and rural areas where polling stations are often located in church basements, clubs and private homes,” which leads to many people with disabilities not voting.7 Despite making progress in voting rights, more laws are necessary to ensure full accessibility at polls as well as reducing the number of people with disabilities who are barred from voting.
The U.S. cannot claim to be a full democracy until everyone has the assistance and accessibility to participate as a citizen.
Although there have been major steps to increase voting rights for the disabled community, many states still bar those with mental issues from voting.8 There is not full enfranchisement for people with disabilities; even those who legally can vote don’t due to accessibility issues. In the 2016 election, only 55.9% of people with disabilities voted,9 compared to the national average of 61% (for women it was 63% and black voters were 59%).10 The U.S. cannot claim to be a full democracy until everyone has the assistance and accessibility to participate as a citizen. The right to vote is a fundamental way to feel like an active participant in society, so to deny many people this right denies them from feeling fully included, which only adds to their sense of marginalization, since people with disabilities are already excluded in so many other ways. Even 100 years after the 19th Amendment was passed, the fight for suffrage goes on for many minorities; it should go on until every citizen is enfranchised and has accessibility to polls.
Kim E. Nielsen, A Disability History of the United States (Boston: Beacon Press, 2012), 76.
Utah Const. art. IV § 6. https://le.utah.gov/xcode/ArticleIV/Article_IV,_Section_6.html?v=UC_AIV_S6_1800010118000101.
Vasilogambros, Matt. "Thousands Lose Right to Vote under 'Incompetence' Laws," Pew Research Center, March 21, 2018. https://pew.org/2HMUHyo.
Douglas C. Baynton, "Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History," in The New Disability History: American Perspectives, ed. Paul K. Longmore and Lauri Umansky (New York: New York University Press, 2001), 43.
Baynton, "Disability and the Justification," in The New Disability, 42, 43.
Baynton, "Disability and the Justification," in The New Disability, 44.
Bellware, Kim. "It's 2014, but It's Still Difficult for People with Disabilities to Vote," HuffPost, November 4, 2014. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/voters-with-disabilities_n_6102132.
National Disability Rights Network, and Schulte Roth & Zabel. "State Laws Affecting the Voting Rights of People with Mental Disabilities." Table. 2016. http://www.bazelon.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/2016_State-Laws-Affecting-Voting-Rights-of-PWD.pdf.
Census Bureau. "Table 6: Reported Voting and Registration, by Sex, Employment Status, Class of Worker, and Disability Status: November 2016." Table. Census Bureau. May 2017. https://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/voting-and-registration/p20-580.html.
Census Bureau. "Table 2: Reported Voting and Registration, by Race, Hispanic Origin, Sex, and Age, for the United States: November 2016." Table. Census Bureau. May 2017. https://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/voting-and-registration/p20-580.html.
Baynton, Douglas C. "Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History." In The New Disability History: American Perspectives, edited by Paul K. Longmore and Lauri Umansky, 33-57. New York: New York University Press, 2001.
Bellware, Kim. "It's 2014, but It's Still Difficult for People with Disabilities to Vote." HuffPost, November 4, 2014. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/voters-with- disabilities_n_6102132.
Census Bureau. "Table 2: Reported Voting and Registration, by Race, Hispanic Origin, Sex, and Age, for the United States: November 2016." Table. Census Bureau. May 2017. https://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/voting-and- registration/p20-580.html.
National Disability Rights Network, and Schulte Roth & Zabel. "State Laws Affecting the Voting Rights of People with Mental Disabilities." Table. 2016. http://www.bazelon.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/2016_State-Laws- Affecting-Voting-Rights-of-PWD.pdf.
Nielsen, Kim E. A Disability History of the United States. Boston: Beacon Press, 2012.
U.S. Const. art. IV § 6. https://le.utah.gov/xcode/ArticleIV/Article_IV,_Section_6.html?v=UC_AIV_S6_1800010118000101.
Vasilogambros, Matt. "Thousands Lose Right to Vote under 'Incompetence' Laws." Pew Research Center, March 21, 2018. https://pew.org/2HMUHyo.