Impact Feature Issue on Political Activism and Voter Participation by Persons with Intellectual and/or Developmental Disabilities

Involving Youth with Disabilities in Politics


Rebecca Hare is Program Associate with the National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth, Washington, D.C.

I am a young person with a disability who votes and who thinks it’s important for other young people to vote and to be involved in our political system. When I think about what it is that motivates youth with disabilities to be politically active, I think it comes down to three things: youth development, leadership  opportunities, and high expectations.

When young people tend to vote regularly, or to be politically active in other ways, more often than not it’s because the expectation of involvement was something drilled into them from an early age. Take my own experience for example. Unlike a majority of people with disabilities, my parents are also people with disabilities. They taught me the importance of and the responsibility that came with casting a vote. Voting is the power to ensure we have people in office to uphold ADA, IDEA, and all other legislation that affects our daily lives. With the number of surgeries my father and mother had over the years, never once did they fail to cast a ballot, whether absentee or in person. They talked about the issues regularly, in language that I, as a young child, could understand. I saw them get involved in organizations like the PTA and become board members for Centers for Independent Living and then involve me in Girl Scouts and community recreation programs, and foster my early interactions with leaders in the disability community.

Only 50% of young people in a recent national survey reported having discussions with their parents about politics, government, and civic events as they were growing up (The Tarrance Group, Inc., 2002). Many young people with disabilities aren’t taught about the importance of voting and political activism in their homes and schools. A search on the Web for information on the topic “special education and voting” results in articles detailing the issues, or articles encouraging educators or parents of children in special education to vote. Nothing about teaching and engaging youth in the process.

So, what are some activities that young people with disabilities can participate in that will encourage their full development as individuals and exercise of leadership abilities, supporting their involvement in voting and other parts of our political system? Here are a few ideas for home, school, and community (Edelman et al., 2004):

  • Developing their own personal plans (such as individualized education plans, transition plans, service plans, as well as informal plans) and having a voice in setting their own goals, action steps, and deadlines.
  • Participating in town hall meetings, debates, and letter-writing campaigns on local social issues.
  • Volunteering in the community for projects such as organizing a park clean-up or building a playground.
  • Training to be a peer mediator.
  • Meeting with local and state officials and legislators.
  • Participating in a youth advisory committee of the city, school board, training center, or other relevant organization.
  • Enrolling in courses about leadership principles and styles, and doing research on historical or current leaders.
  • Participating in resource mapping activities in which youth take the lead in planning and carrying out a search of community resources for youth.
  • Being part of group activities that promote collaboration and teamwork.
  • Being in mentoring relationships with positive role models.
  • Serving in leadership roles such as club officer, board member, team captain, or coach.
  • Taking workshops to learn public speaking.
  • Having contact with local leaders.
  • Working with others to do strategic planning to change something in the community or within a youth program.

As I said earlier, I believe it all comes down to youth development, youth leadership, and high expectations for young people. In order to control and direct their own lives based on informed decisions, and in order to participate as young leaders with disabilities in their communities, youth with disabilities need to have opportunities to develop their potential in all areas of their lives and to exercise leadership skills, and they need to hold high expectations for themselves. And the adults around them need to help create those opportunities and expectations. Young people need mentoring activities designed to establish strong relationships with role models with and without disabilities. They need training in skills such as self-advocacy and conflict resolution. They need exposure to personal leadership and youth development activities, including community service. And youth with disabilities need an understanding of disability history and culture, of policy issues affecting people with disabilities, and of their rights and responsibilities as citizens.

Youth with disabilities need to be heard. We are the generation who grew up with the protections guaranteed by the ADA, IDEA, Rehab Act, and other progressive legislation. It is time now for our generation to have our torch lighted and join our fellow leaders to continue to empower our people and let the government hear our voices.


  • Edelman, A., Gill, P., Comerford, K., Larson, M., & Hare, R. (2004). Youth development and youth leadership (Background paper). Retrieved from National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth website: http://www.ncwd-youth.info/
  • The Tarrance Group, Inc. (2002). Short-term impacts, long-term opportunities: The political and civic engagement of young adults in America. Retrieved from The Center for Information and Research in Civic Learning and Engagement. website: http://www.civicyouth.org/research/products/national_youth_survey.htm