Get Off Your Duff: Political Volunteering With a Disability

The 24-hour cable news stations won’t stop babbling about it. Your Facebook friends won’t stop raging about it. And pols won’t stop tweeting about it. These days, there’s no escaping it — and you know exactly what it is: politics.

Tired of feeling frustrated, I wanted to get involved. There’s big stuff going on — 23 candidates in the Democratic primary race and more each time I edit this article — and I didn’t want it all to pass me by. I began poking around my rural area 70 miles north of Houston, looking for ways a quadriplegic with multiple sclerosis could participate from a wheelchair. Hopefully my journey will give you ideas for how to get involved where you live.

The Easiest Step

Linda Cohn, president of the League of Women Voters of the Houston Area, said everything starts with getting registered. “You have to be registered if you want to vote,” she says, “and voting is the most important way to participate in the system that determines everyday life. When you’re driving to work in the morning and you’re in a traffic jam, maybe the system can be tweaked to improve the traffic, and the people who make these decisions will be the ones who will be voted for in November.”

Cohn timed it and said the Texas registration form takes 29 seconds to fill out. “The voter registration form is so easy, trust me,” she says. “It is the easiest government form you will fill out.” Find the registration form you need through your state’s website.

This simple act could bring massive results. In 2016 Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump each notched just over 27% of all voting-age Americans’ votes. Now compare that to the 43% who didn’t register. It’s President Not-Registered, by a landslide!

Additionally, voters with disabilities are among those at risk for losing their rights to the restrictive voting policies being passed in states like mine. In Louisiana, officials in one parish — that’s what they call counties — closed 21 polling places by claiming they could not be made accessible. It pays to be vigilant.

From Humble Origins

Registering to vote may seem like a minor step, but everything has to start somewhere. “You might get bitten by the bug and find yourself organizing more and more,” says Cohn. “Start small, start with a little piece of your day, don’t try to take on the world in one fell swoop. Do something as part of something you’re already doing.”

James Van Winkle of Conroe, Texas, can testify to Cohn’s comment. Van Winkle, 62, felt his back up against the wall before getting involved. When an auto injury left him quadriplegic, Van Winkle suffered severe depression. His big step forward was volunteering at a local mental health organization, doing what he knew how to: teaching computers and finding used equipment in the community. His work snowballed into advocacy. Now coordinator of Conroe/Houston ADAPT, a direct action group, Van Winkle meets with local leaders and legislators at the capitol in Austin. He even lobbied Texas Governor Greg Abbott by purchasing a copy of Abbott’s book and waiting in the autograph line — doubly interesting because Abbott is himself a wheelchair user.

“People look at you like you should be grateful for what you have and that you should not expect what everybody else has. That’s wrong,” Van Winkle says. “You’ve got a mind, you can think, you can do stuff.

“Go and volunteer at your local groups. Let yourself be known. Let people see you, that you’re a part of the community. Don’t hide in your house. Get out in public and let people see who you are. And then it can grow from there. You don’t have to get radical, you don’t have to throw a fit. You just have to be there.”

Something for Everyone

Being there can take on a variety of forms, from nuts-and-bolts needs such as canvassing, serving on organizing committees and distributing materials like political signs, to things you may not have considered. “There are a lot of activities behind the scenes without going around canvassing a neighborhood and ringing doorbells,” says Richard Yawn, vice-chairman of the Walker County Republican Party.

This is one thing all political parties can agree on: “There’s a role for everybody,” says Bernard Sampson, coordinator of the Houston Organizers for Bernie Sanders. “We need people who will raise or collect money, or who will host watch parties, get-togethers, things like that.”

Sampson says there’s a role for anyone with any amount of time to spare: knocking on doors or making phone calls; serving on outreach committees to labor, LGBTQ or people of color; or helping organize watch parties of campaign events. There are even roles for those who are shy.

“You just have to get over your fear or apprehension and just do it. Getting out of your box is really uncomfortable, but it’s so worth it,” says Iowa advocate Jenn Wolff. Wolff, a 48-year-old T10 paraplegic and board member of United Spinal Association Iowa Chapter, has notched years of advocacy and outreach. “There are so many different ways that you can advocate at your comfort level.”

Wolff’s advocacy was born of her own frustration when the wheelchair that therapists said she needed was denied by Medicare. In that moment of desperation, she spotted an ad for a scholarship to an event organized around preserving access to complex rehab technology in Washington, D.C. She took the leap and filled out the application and hasn’t looked back since.

Now years and many projects later, she continues organizing outreach programs, both in-person — her March event included 10 participants in chairs — and through online videoconferencing with the Zoom Meetings app that lets people participate from home, so valuable in rural areas like hers in northeastern Iowa where transportation is an issue.

Many organizations and campaigns across the political spectrum are easily accessible online., Common Cause and Human Rights Watch are just a few of the groups welcoming those willing to write letters or call their reps. Many organizations enable phone banking from home: Obama for President 2008 featured internet phone banking that was smooth and simple. Running it with voice recognition was touchy but doable, and adding a mouthstick made it sail.

But no associations at all are needed to whip out the phone or pen and let federal, state and local officials know just what you expect out of government. Writing letters to the editor, attending meetings of local boards, volunteering at citizens groups around town, or even meeting with judges or police officials are all ways to exert influence — and much more effective than rage-watching cable news in your underwear.

“You can look into building relationships with your local or state legislators,” says Wolff. “You can just get signed up to be on action alerts so you can send an email or phone call. There are so many different avenues.”

Get Out the Vote

Running a one-person voter registration drive is a great way to dip your wheels into the political waters. And it’s easy, too, according to Linda Cohn, president of the League of Women Voters of the Houston Area. Registration forms can be found at public buildings like libraries or tax assessors’ offices. She suggests carrying around forms and leaving them Johnny Appleseed-style at work or other stops on the daily routine, such as block parties or other community events.

“You don’t have to devote huge amounts of time to develop and manage a vast voter registration campaign,” says Cohn. “For instance, if you have a Girl Scout troop or a Boy Scout troop, send them home with a form or two and ask them to pass them along to someone who might need it. Or at the doctor’s office, ask if you can leave a couple of voter registration forms on the counter for someone who might need it. Throw breadcrumbs in the pond sort of thing. Get them out there in the community.”

• Democratic National Committee,
• Republican National Committee,
• League of Women Voters,
• United Spinal Association,

** This post was originally published on

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