Stacey Abrams did not become governor of Georgia. Our incredible team worked tirelessly for a year to reach Georgians in every corner of our state, building a powerful coalition of voters. We ultimately came up short, but our team made history. One of the most important, groundbreaking things we did was prioritize the disabled community in ways that no political campaign has ever done before, permanently raising the bar for how campaigns must include disabled voters.
In 2021, when I was asked to help launch Stacey’s second bid for governor, I’d been working at her voting rights organization Fair Fight Action for a couple of years. Part of my work there included advising on disability issues and leading a group of national disability advocates who worked with us to ensure that our nonpartisan fight for free and fair elections included disabled folks. Together we made huge gains.
As a disabled person, I know firsthand many of the issues that impact our community, especially in a state like Georgia where we have long been disenfranchised and underserved. Georgia advocates like Zan Thorton, Amy Cohen Efron, Kristi Merriweather, the late Lois Curtis, and many others laid the groundwork to make our work on the Abrams campaign happen, and if the disabled community is to continue gaining power in 2024 and beyond, we have to build on the work that’s already been done.
To start, campaigns must prioritize access. On the Abrams campaign, our social media content was always fully accessible – captioned videos, alt text on images, ASL interpreters for live streams. While this is the most basic way to make content accessible, unfortunately the vast majority of campaigns fail to do even these fundamental things.
We took it a step further, however. We not only ensured our website design was fully accessible, but we published full translations of our website in both plain language and in American Sign Language. With 25% of Georgia’s adults identifying as disabled, it wasn’t an option for us to make every aspect of our campaign accessible—it was a necessity. That is how all campaigns, regardless of party affiliation, must operate. Every elected official has disabled constituents and every candidate needs to win over disabled voters, so making content accessible is the most basic thing a campaign can do.
But the work can’t stop there. Campaigns must meet disabled people where we are and have conversations with members of the disabled community who are typically ignored in politics, like people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, disabled youth, and DeafBlind people—all of whom have long been ignored by our elected officials. Every meeting and event a campaign holds, whether it’s specifically for the disabled community or not, has to be made accessible for every person who wants to attend.
Policy teams must start writing comprehensive disability policy platforms with their candidates. In the disability rights policy platform that we wrote together, we made sure that promises made to our community were tangible and real. Stories from every disabled Georgian we talked to were reflected in that platform. While virtually every issue is a disability issue, having a separate and thoughtful disability policy platform that is written with disabled people is critically important. Disabled people are experts in the policy that impacts our lives, so policy teams must hire folks from our community so we can share our important perspectives.
Perhaps most importantly, though, campaigns must hire Deaf, disabled, chronically ill, and neurodivergent staff, both on disability-focused teams and across other departments. For the first time in political history, our campaign hired not one but two full-time American Sign Language interpreters. When I started the campaign’s Disability Engagement & Accessibility department, I knew that we needed to not only hire Deaf and disabled staffers in non-disability specific roles, but we needed to have full-time interpreters on staff as well. We hired two Deaf staffers to financial and organizing roles, and then built out the rest of my department to focus on disability-specific work.
By the end of the campaign, the Disability Engagement & Accessibility department had nine staffers committed to ensuring that disabled Georgians felt understood by our campaign. We built our own disability “Get Out The Vote” program and hired a dozen other paid, part-time disability community captains. We worked together to reach disabled voters across the state through early voting and Election Day.
This effort was championed by Stacey and the rest of senior leadership, all of whom understood that the only way to reach disabled Georgians was to make sure that our community was represented throughout our campaign staff. Other campaigns can replicate this. It can be difficult for leadership to figure out how to best use dollars, especially with a smaller budget, but it will never be the wrong decision to invest in turning out such a large community of voters and including them on a team.
For far too long, campaigns have failed to meet even the most basic standards of accessibility. They’ve shown time and time again that the disability community is not a priority constituency. There can no longer be any excuse to exclude the, at minimum, 61 million disabled people in this country. Deaf folks should not have to beg for ASL interpreters at events. Advocates should not have to tweet at candidates to ask that they include captions in their videos or alt text on their images. Disabled people should not have to be excluded from working on campaigns because those in leadership don’t care to create a culture that is both accessible and inclusive. Candidates can no longer ignore the disability community—full stop.
Georgia disability rights advocate Mark Crenshaw told me that our campaign brought “disabled Georgians together to dream a future.” Disabled Georgians now know that there are people fighting for them. It is my mission to ensure that other candidates for elected office across this nation fight for our community, too. We must expect nothing less.
Dom Kelly (he/him) is the Founder, President, and CEO of New Disabled South and New Disabled South Rising, a joint 501c3 and 501c4 organization working to achieve justice and liberation for disabled people in the U.S. South. Previously, he was both Senior Advisor for Disability and Fundraising Director on Stacey Abrams’ gubernatorial campaign; prior to that, he worked at her voting rights organization Fair Fight Action. He currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia with his wife, dog, cat, and their first human baby on the way in May 2023.