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

Voting Our Values


Mary Kay Kennedy is Director of the self-advocacy organization Advocating Change Together (ACT), in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Voting is important. But it seems like such a dull topic. It’s hard to motivate ourselves and others to vote. Why? Does it appear that voting doesn’t matter? Or is it that we don’t really care about politics? Is it because we see voting is an isolated, solitary activity? It’s just not a very glamorous activity all by itself.

So why does voting matter to those of us involved in self-advocacy? Here’s why. Public officials decide how much funding goes to public transportation. Public officials decide how much funding goes to affordable housing. Public officials decide how much funding goes to work programs. Public officials decide how much funding goes for Personal Care Assistance. It definitely matters who gets elected. Elected officials make decisions based on their values. We need to elect people with values similar to ours, who believe in independence, real jobs, affordable housing, and accessible public transportation. For example, in Minnesota, millions of dollars in public transit funding are on the chopping block. While funding for mass transit gets slashed, highway funding is increasing. “People who drive cars are seen as voters, those of us who take the bus are seen as non-voters”, says self-advocate Carol Robinson. “We need to let elected officials know that we vote and that they better pay attention to us. If we had more political power, public transit would not be at risk every year.”

Perhaps elected officials do share our values but there just isn’t enough money for our issues. Oftentimes, when officials say there is no money it is because they have decided there is no money. It is a values issue, based on what they feel is most important. When we look at any of the issues facing Americans it all boils down to values. People with disabilities value independence, jobs, housing, transportation, and relationships. We look to elected officials to take actions to assure that our rights to live, work, and participate in our communities are protected.

So how do we decide who to vote for? We need to first know our values and then find candidates who have similar values. “You need to have issues you care about in order to know who to vote for,” says Carol Robinson. “You need to dig down deep and know your values, and then you can match your issues and values to candidates.” Carol helps others with disabilities clarify their values at disability rights conferences, asking them to create personal collages that represent what is important to them. “Once people take the time to reflect on their values and priorities, it’s a starting point for figuring out who to vote for,” she says.

Once we know our values, how do we choose among the candidates? Not by watching television. Television ads favor the best-looking candidates with the most money. “There is no way you will be able to figure out who to vote for by watching ads on TV. You need to get involved with issues you care about and go from there,” says Carol. She does not cast her vote based on a single issue, but she does have a few issues she keeps her eye on. “It’s just too confusing to try to follow all of the issues. I care about affordable housing and public transportation; these are my top issues. When I find candidates who will work hard for issues that affect poor people I usually find that their votes match my values on other issues, too.”

It’s helpful to see voting as one step of a larger process. It is not the first step and it is not the last step. It’s right in the middle. Before this step are getting informed, talking to others, clarifying our values, and pushing our candidates to take strong stands on the issues. After the voting process are dealing with the election results, continuing to press for our issues, and planning for next time. It is this whole process that is motivating to so many self-advocates. “Simply voting does not turn me on,” says self-advocate Gloria Steinbring. “It’s about being active, getting involved in the issues that affect us, and finding elected officials who really work for our community. That’s what it’s all about. Voting is just one little part of getting involved and having our voices heard.”

As we clarify what is important to us, discover and name the values we hold most dear, and become involved in the empowering process of making change, the motivation to vote becomes stronger. We need to work with each other to vote in force and see that our votes count. We need to be visible and vocal. We need to be noticed. Let’s vote our values this year and make our needs visible.