In the first quantitative study of disability among American politicians, Rutgers University researchers found that an estimated 10.3 percent of elected officials serving in federal, state, and local government—a total of nearly 3,800 people—have disabilities. That is 5.4 percentage points lower than the overall disability rate in the adult population (15.7 percent), suggesting that people with disabilities are underrepresented in the halls of power. However, the report finds three notable exceptions: Younger people with disabilities, Native Americans with disabilities, and disabled veterans of recent wars are well-represented in politics.
“People with disabilities cannot achieve equality unless they are part of government decision-making,” said Professor Lisa Schur, JD, PhD, co-director of the Program for Disability Research in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations (SMLR) and co-author of the report. “While there appears to be progress, our findings show they are still underrepresented among elected officials at all levels of government.”
“Like other people with disabilities, politicians with disabilities often face stigma and questions about their ability to do the job. That’s why President Franklin D. Roosevelt hid his reliance on a wheelchair,” said Distinguished Professor Douglas Kruse, PhD, co-director of the Program for Disability Research and co-author of the report. “But there has been progress as shown by passage of the [Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990], and now we have prominent politicians in both parties who don’t hide their disabilities.”
The National Council on Independent Living (NCIL) maintains databases of candidates and current elected officials with disabilities, including prominent figures like Texas Governor Greg Abbott and U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth. In addition, NCIL recently launched Elevate, a non-partisan campaign training program for people with disabilities who are interested in running for public office.
For more information, visit www.ncil.org/elevate.
This article was adapted from information provided by SMLR.
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FIVE MODERN-DAY POLITICIANS (WHO ARE ALSO AMPUTEES)
TAMMY DUCKWORTH has served as a U.S. Senator for Illinois since 2017. Duckworth was the first Thai-American woman elected to Congress and the first female double amputee in the senate.
BRIAN MAST is a U.S. Representative for Florida. Prior to entering politics, Mast was an explosives technician for the U.S. Army. He lost both legs while serving in Afghanistan in 2010.
MAX CLELAND was a U.S. Senator for Georgia from 1997 to 2003. He lost his legs and right forearm in the Vietnam War. Cleland also served in the Georgia Senate from 1971 to 1975.
DANIEL INOUYE served as a U.S. Senator for Hawaii from 1963 until his death in 2012. Inouye is the highest-ranking Asian-American politician in history. He lost his right arm in World War II.
BOB KERREY was the 35th governor of Nebraska from 1983 to 1987. He was a U.S. Senator from 1989 to 2001. Kerrey was a U.S. Navy SEAL who lost his lower right leg in the Vietnam War.