Personal Story

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

Standing Up for Myself: Political Activism and Voting


Tony Phillips is past president and a long-term advisor for the Self-Advocacy Association of New York State.

I got involved in politics and campaigns about eight years ago. I was listening to the Rev. Al Sharpton on the radio. I thought to myself, this guy is a troublemaker! He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I went to his headquarters at a school in Harlem to find out more about what he was saying regarding civil rights. I really didn’t believe what he was talking about until one day I listened really carefully. He was telling us about an older woman that was shot by the police because they thought she was a drug dealer. I understood what Rev. Sharpton was talking about in that case, how some of the police were out of control.

I was watching carefully as Bill Clinton was running for president. I noticed that he never mentioned anything about people with disabilities, not at first. It seemed nobody was talking about people with disabilities and our struggles. Rev. Sharpton was running for Senate, so I went to find him and speak with him personally about this. When I arrived at his office, I told his staff that I wanted to talk with him. They said okay, but when Rev. Sharpton came out, it seemed to me that some of his staff didn’t want him to talk with me. So I went to UCP (United Cerebral Palsy) and told a friend of mine what happened. My friend asked me what I wanted to do about it. I said I wanted to write Rev. Sharpton a letter and let him know how I felt about it. And so I wrote him a letter. The next week he called me. He apologized for what happened and said that I could always call on him. We talked on the phone for a long time. He later appointed me the chair of a committee on disability with his National Action Network.

I’ve always stood up for myself. When I was young, and some people close to me didn’t want me to say anything for myself, I had to advocate on my behalf. And when I grew older and moved out, people told me that to make change you have to be at the table. I was ready to do that, but at my workplace people weren’t ready to listen to this. One night after they had fired one of the bosses we liked, people were asking me what we should do (I was president of the workshop’s self-advocacy group at the time.) I said we should have a walkout and tell people what we were upset about. In order to make change, we had to band together. This was how I became really involved in self-advocacy.

I’m involved in my community in many ways. I’m a deacon with my church in Harlem and I try to do as it says in the Bible: Help those who need help. I work with people in a number of ways to make things better for people. Let’s take the buses and the subways in New York, for example. The bus is accessible. Some of the subway is accessible. How did we accomplish this? People with disabilities pulled together, in particular a group called ADAPT, and made our voices heard. We made connections to other people who use accessible buses, like the elderly and women pushing strollers. There are a lot of people without disabilities who use these accommodations. When we identify a problem, we need to take action and do something about it.

I also vote. If you don’t vote you really don’t get what you want in life. Some people feel that their vote doesn’t count, but it does. When you don’t participate and vote you’re letting the other person win. If we don’t vote, we won’t get heard. We are still fighting for people to listen to us. It’s so hard. We cannot give up on voting; this would be a big mistake.

In this next presidential election, one issue I want addressed is more people with disabilities getting jobs. I’m going to a march in a few weeks and I will try and speak out on this issue. I encourage other people with disabilities to speak out, too. We have to let political candidates and other leaders know that our voices count. And we have to let other people with disabilities know that our voices count.

Do I have any advice for others with disabilities about voting and getting involved in politics? Yes. Do it!