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Guest Blogger


Creating New Spaces for Citizens with Disabilities in Political Participation

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Disability policy advocate Erica Edwards talks about her experience serving in her city's Commission on Disability Issues and the impact such councils have on changing public attitudes towards disability issues. 

I was recently nominated to serve on the Mayor’s Commission on Disability Issues for the city where I live. While it is an honor to be asked, I am hesitant about my ability to make a real impact. Is this a Commission that is actively supported by the City Council to overcome barriers to inclusion, or is it a token board… there in name only to demonstrate that the city supports people with disabilities, yet any recommendations given by the Commission never make it to the City Council? In my preliminary research of fifteen U.S. cities, I have observed that few disability commissions meet more than a few times a year. Those that are active are not engaged in systemic issues, while those that are, are met with challenges as their recommendations are not advanced to the full City Council.

“Tokenism” is the ability for a participant to hear and have a voice, but have no real impact on decision-making. In Sherry Arnstein’s (1969) classic work “Ladder of Participation” she warns that advisory forums, to which people with disabilities are commonly invited, are highly tokenistic and do not yield authentic participation in the political process. Although Arnstein’s work was written over 40 years ago, her theory still rings true today. Research conducted around the world have overwhelmingly found that on political advisory bodies, people with disabilities feel overlooked by their fellow members, don’t feel supported with enough information to better understand what is going on, and as a result, they did not contribute anything to the discussions. They feel like tokens. Thus, government leaders, whether knowingly or not, create the illusion of inviting citizens with disabilities to participate in decision-making, when these policies and processes are often pre-determined, leaving them out of the process. These same exclusive actions happen in many countries with those that are poor, minority, or immigrants…in effect, the voiceless…causing the gap between the haves and the have nots to widen.

Most governments do not know how to engage those that are disengaged. The National League of Cities conducted a survey in 2009 of 313 cities and towns across the U.S. that measured perceptions of municipal officials’ current citizen participation and processes. Following are some of the more noteworthy findings:

  • Over half of all city officials said that they did not have the skills to carry out effective public engagement and that residents were not stepping up to their roles.
  • Only 27% reported that their citizen participation processes often brought in large and diverse numbers of people.
  • The majority of city officials felt that no matter what they did, citizens would not become involved due to apathy.

To remedy these issues and increase citizen participation, there has been greater emphasis placed on the use of social media and e-government, which are also being plagued by many challenges. There is very little two way communication, few citizens are actually utilizing the sites, and they are not accessible to those with visual impairments. The federal government is trying to correct this, however. Section 508 requires that federal agencies’ electronic and information technology be accessible to people with disabilities; however, 12 years after this law was enacted, many technological barriers still exist. The Obama Administration, in its quest for user driven innovation, has recently asked the public for ideas of how to improve the Section 508 program to make it more accessible, so that people with disabilities will be able to be included in government communications. Click here to view the site.

While this is a start in the right direction, more needs to be done to overcome barriers in participation for citizens with disabilities and for those that are marginalized. In Spaces for Change? The politics of Citizen Participation in New Democratic Arenas (2007), what seem to be simple recommendations for modifying processes can make meetings universally accessible and democratic – allowing the excluded to be included:

  • More invitations to participate should be offered to those that are excluded;
  • New rules and procedures can be introduced that gives all participants an opportunity to talk;
  • Less technical language should be used;
  • Seating arrangements can be changed so that those in authority sit among those with less power;
  • Politically neutral spaces can be created in rural and urban areas where the citizens live, instead of at City Hall;   
  • Consultative options can be offered before meetings to give citizens time to deliberate on policy options so that they are better prepared.

By letting go of process and rules that constrict engagement for participants with disabilities and acting more as a facilitator and helper, public administrators are promoting democratic values, trust and legitimacy of government. As a result, I will continue to push myself and others to think outside of traditional practices when it comes to engaging those that are not engaged. Submitting innovative ideas to the White House is a start. My role with the municipal advisory board can also serve as a platform to put research into action while learning from and encouraging others to use their voices. As the saying goes,“there is no research without action, and there is no action without research.” – Kurt Lewin

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Erica Edwards has cerebral palsy and 15 years of experience in disability working as: licensed counselor, policy analyst, educator, researcher, writer, and Executive Director. Her research dedicated to disability policy, inclusion and government administration has been published and presented at national/international conferences. She is currently obtaining her PhD in Public Administration.