Project Wonderful

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Elevate Training For Candidates With Disabilities!

Good morning! It is highly possible I'm the worst. I had so many good posts planned and then life happened and now it is all backed up. Sincerest apologies to Sarah Blahovec and Neal Carter who sent me these answers over a week ago! More to come!

1) Who are you? Tell us about yourself.

My name is Sarah Blahovec, and I am the Disability Vote Organizer for the National Council on Independent Living, where I work on issues across the civic engagement spectrum for people with disabilities. I've been in this role for nearly three years, and I work on both voting rights and issues around running for office. I have a disability myself, a severe chronic illness, which greatly influenced my career path (I got a degree in International Studies, and after college worked in administrative jobs while building my profile and learning about disability rights). I believe that everybody can find a role in civic engagement and the public sector, and that's not just restricted to being a candidate. There's campaign staff, volunteers, political appointees, government staff, and even jobs like mine, where I work on civic engagement through a nonprofit.

2) What is NCIL?

The National Council on Independent Living is the longest-running cross-disability advocacy organization in the country. It is the membership organization for centers for independent living (CILs) and statewide independent living councils (SILCs). NCIL operates on the philosophy of independent living, which emphasizes that people with disabilities are the best experts on their own needs, and we are deserving of equal opportunity. While NCIL is a membership organization for CILs and SILCs, which are non-residential community resource centers led by the disability community to help people with disabilities remain independent, we also have a committee structure that organizes around a vast number of advocacy priorities, everything from voting rights and civil rights to transportation, housing, diversity, and so much more.

3) Tell us about the Elevate training

The Elevate training is a five-week webinar pilot program geared towards first-time candidates with disabilities, as well as people who want to work with candidates with disabilities or in campaigns as a person with a disability. It is taught from a cross-disability perspective and has five expert political consultants who will talk about how to successfully fundraise, kick off a campaign, craft your message as a candidate, find staff, and talk to voters. While all are welcome, we designed it in a way that understands that our identities don't exist in a vacuum, and that candidates with disabilities who come from other marginalized backgrounds will have different experiences. All of our trainers are people of color, some are women of color, and all are great allies to marginalized candidates. This series was developed with Neal Carter, Principal of Nu View Consulting, as our lead consultant to help design the entire curriculum. Neal is an expert in campaigns and runs the only black-owned, disability owned political consulting firm in existence. He has extensive knowledge both from a campaigns and cross-disability perspective, and his work on this project has been key to its development.

4) Why is it important to have a specific campaign training for people with disabilities?

The barriers that candidates with disabilities experience are twofold: there are both attitudinal and access barriers in the campaign world. These manifest in ways that make it much harder for many candidates with disabilities to run a successful political campaign. They may experience physical barriers to participating in the campaign process, roadblocks from local parties who do not want to provide accommodations, or ableist beliefs from voters and opponents who don't understand that disabled people can be leaders.

5) What different challenges and opportunities might candidates with disabilities face?

I've seen many candidates with disabilities experience challenges from their local party. For instance, many Deaf candidates have not been given an interpreter to participate in a local forum, or forums or other events may be held in inaccessible locations. Some voters may think that a disabled person shouldn't run for office because they have negative beliefs about what a candidate should look like, sound like, or act like. Some candidates may end up being pigeonholed as "the disabled candidate," and their knowledge and expertise on issues outside of disability-specific concerns may not be recognized. That being said, there are many opportunities for candidates with disabilities as well. There are many successful public office holders with disabilities that represent not just the disability community but all of their constituents. They bring unique lived experience and can advocate for both disability-specific and community-wide changes. Many disabled people are primed for leadership because they exist in a society that isn't built for their needs, and so they become resilient, adaptable, and great problem solver. Elevate will help people with disabilities take these characteristics and give them the campaign skills they need to literally elevate their leadership to public office.

6) What is different about this training?

This training is the first of its kind (that we know of) in addressing the needs of candidates with disabilities. It will not only address the concerns that all candidates have around things like fundraising, messaging, voter contact, and operations, but will be able to talk about the accommodations and adaptations that candidates or campaign staff with disabilities can make to run a campaign successfully as a person with a disability. We can speak to how to canvass and phone bank when you have disabilities that may make walking neighborhoods and talking on phones challenging, how to hire staff and volunteers who can work with your access needs, and much more. This will in fact be a little bit of an experiment: we can anticipate some of the questions that we'll get from different participants, but we're sure that we'll also get some very disability-specific questions that may take more thought or research. I'm prepared to take any questions that we can't confidently answer, find the right person (likely someone with that access need or disability who has run for office before), and find the answer.

7) The next training is coming up. Are there plans for another one soon?

This is a pilot training that had a very specific grant, and so we're going to see how this one goes, but we really would love to keep this going both in an online format and through in-person trainings. For that, we need to raise the money! If this program is a success, we are hoping that it will draw potential donors and investors who see the value in continuing to grow this project.

8) Are there any specific resources for campaign operatives with disabilities?

At NCIL, we have created a guide for access and inclusion geared at political campaigns. "Including People with Disabilities in Your Political Campaign: A Guide for Campaign Staff" is an extensive (and free) document on many aspects of including people with disabilities in a political campaign. It is geared towards those who have little knowledge of the disability community, and discusses things like basic disability etiquette and understanding different disabilities and access needs, making events and information accessible to voters with disabilities, and adapting different campaign tasks and roles to staff and volunteers with disabilities. It is available at We would love to create more resources like this and to expand our work around political campaigns, and are looking for opportunities to do so (which means money to do so, as well).

9) Are there any current candidates or elected officials with disabilities you'd like to highlight?

We keep databases of candidates and elected officials with disabilities, available at and This is far from an exhaustive list, as it is open source and based on community contributions. There are around 520,000 elected positions throughout the United States, and while it isn't difficult to learn about some Congressional candidates and elected officials (if they openly identify as having a disability), it gets very hard to track all of the candidates and elected officials at the local and state levels. If you know of anybody who should be added to the list, please visit these websites and submit their name, and we'll make sure to add them!

10) What else do you want us to know?

For this program and for all of the work around civic engagement for the disability community to be successful, we really need people to show up and show their support. Whether you're attending Elevate (please do!), voting in an election (including state and local elections), volunteering on a campaign, trying to find paid work in the campaign space, or advocating for changes in your government, or even donating to programs like ours so that we can continue to build these programs, your presence is essential to building a bigger consciousness around the political participation of people with disabilities.

Please check out NCIL and Nu View Consulting!

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