Last month, ChrisTiana ObeySumner’s doctor ordered bed rest after they experienced a serious neurological event. But with Election Day just around the corner, the multi-disabled Seattle City Council candidate felt they could not afford to miss forums, endorsement meetings, and days of voter contact. Not to mention their full-time job.
“My medical team is pissed at me,” ObeySumner laughed, seemingly desensitized to their own health scares.
Their tone shifted. “Everyone asks disabled people to run for office—and that’s great and we should—but then we run for office while disabled, and that doesn’t look like the model for a ‘viable’ candidate.”
Disabled people face woeful underrepresentation in all levels of government, and it's not because they make for bad policymakers. Systemic barriers within the world of campaigning coupled with the ableist backlash faced by those who try to surmount those barriers keep disabled people out of the halls of power, excluding their vital perspectives in crafting policy for a more accessible world.
ObeySumner, a social equity consultant, burlesque performer, and Stranger-endorsed candidate in District 5, represents the one in four adults in the US who have a disability. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that’s 61 million people with disabilities in areas such as vision, hearing, cognition, and mobility, which affects one in seven adults. Bear in mind, that 2018 statistic predates the pandemic, which some describe as a historic mass disabling event.
As with many marginalized communities, disabled people are underrepresented in elected office. According to a 2018 study from Rutgers University, only one in 10 elected officials have disabilities.
Voters in Washington do not see many disabled politicians. An incomplete database compiled by the National Council on Independent Living lists School Board Vivian Song Maritz, who is hard of hearing, as the state’s only disabled elected official. The database noted that Seattle’s Sherae Lascelles and Pasco’s Carly Coburn ran for the Washington State House of Representatives in 2020 but lost. Seattle City Council Member Debra Juarez, who isn't included in the database, opened up about her multiple sclerosis diagnosis after she was elected. Other elected officials certainly have disabilities, but for one reason or another they do not disclose this information.
Sarah Blahovec, the co-founder of Disability Victory, a nonprofit that supports disabled candidates, attributed the disparity to barriers baked into society and a tendency for others to blame, stigmatize, and discredit disabled people for not simply floating above those barriers.
Barriers to Entry
Blahovec said disabled people face hurdles at every step of the campaign process. First and foremost, running for office makes a candidate ineligible for benefits such as Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income, which presents perhaps the most monumental systemic barrier.
In addition, disabled people are twice as likely to live in poverty than non-disabled people, so the cost of running for office may be prohibitive. Hearing-impaired candidates may need accommodation while phone-banking. Candidates in wheelchairs may need assistance to canvas the neighborhood. The list goes on.
ObeySumner works 40 hours per week as a social equity consultant, so they do not receive income from the Social Security Administration. But running for office cut their medical insurance, making an already strenuous process even more risky to their health. They said they have avoided urgent care visits because they won’t be able to afford the bills until after the campaign ends.
Now, as the campaign season enters its final month, ObeySumner and other disabled candidates must attempt to knock doors in a city with hilly neighborhoods, a nearly criminal lack of sidewalks, and stairs, stairs, and more stairs.
Politicos consider door-knocking paramount to winning elections. While some city council candidates spend hours every day knocking their neighbors’ doors and asking for votes, ObeySumner is lucky if they pull an hour-and-a-half shift over the weekend–and that can knock them out for a week.
Still, they do what they can to have a successful canvas. They put their service dog, Barkley, in a little sweater, listen to their “campaign pump-up” playlist, fill up on water, and sometimes smoke a cigarette to take the edge off before they hit the pavement. Afterwards, they usually eat a carb-loaded meal, employ their at-home arsenal of physical therapeutic paraphernalia, and watch the new Kardashian show on Hulu to think about someone else’s drama instead of politics.
ObeySumner said they can usually walk door-to-door for about 45 minutes at a time before their multiple sclerosis, a chronic disease of the central nervous system, causes fatigue. On top of that, their postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, a condition more commonly referred to as “POTS,” where the body cannot keep its blood pressure stable, can make ObeySumner pass out from lack of oxygen to the brain. Aside from those physical disabilities, they’re also autistic, and they describe themself as “mad.”
Their husband jokes that if ObeySumner were a Dungeons & Dragons character, they would have zero “constitution.” He carries a lawn chair on his back as they walk from door to door so ObeySumner can sit and take a breather when public benches are scarce—and they usually are.
ObeySumner enlists their husband to reach inaccessible doors. In Victory Heights, where they canvassed last weekend, most doors fit that description. When they can’t walk to the door, they try to smile and wave at the voters from the bottom of the stairs, which isn’t ideal.
To reach people in person, ObeySumner spends more time tabling at farmers markets and at other outdoor events. The candidate may engage with more out-of-district voters that way, which isn’t great for direct voter contact, but their consultant, Matt Lang, said they use the opportunity to collect Democracy Vouchers.
The chattering class has privately leveled criticisms against ObeySumner for not knocking enough doors or for otherwise not campaigning “hard enough,” but ObeySumner argues that politicos somewhat romanticize the process. Direct voter contact, they say, can happen without trudging through neighborhoods.
“I know that being an elected official is hard, but it's not this,” they said of physically walking around neighborhoods, a part of the job interview that doesn’t really relate to the actual job. “I just keep reminding myself that this is how I get to the policy work.”
When ObeySumner does go door-to-door, Lang says they try to use their time wisely by targeting neighborhoods that voted for third-place candidate Nilu Jenks. That way, they might be able to pick off some of her more than 4,000 supporters.
Jenks often got pegged as the more “viable” candidate in the District 5 race since she raised the most money and seemingly knocked the most doors. Now that Jenks is out of the race, some voters continue to completely deny ObeySumner’s viability, insisting the more conservative candidate, former King County Judge Cathy Moore, is destined to win. Moore has the “professional experience” and she isn’t an “ideologue,” ObeySumner said, parroting the argument they have heard.
Lang dismissed that line as a mischaracterization. For one, ObeySumner’s resume is absolutely stacked. Also, everyone is an ideologue, but people only call you that when you’re on the left or the right, as if center-left or center-right candidates weren’t just as doggedly ideological in their milquetoast policy prescriptions.
Plus, ObeySumner and Moore have raised similar amounts of money. and ObeySumer argues their donations better indicate voter support because their average donation weighs in at $62 compared to Moore’s average donation of $104. Oh, and Moore dumped $20,000 into her campaign from her own wallet.
On top of that, Democracy Vouchers–City-funded coupons that residents can use to donate to candidates–make up 72% of ObeySumner’s funds and 42% of Moore’s. As a percentage of her overall fundraising amount, Moore has raised the least in Democracy Vouchers of any remaining candidate, according to recent public disclosures.
Ableism at the Polls
Despite holding a similar standing in the race, ObeySumner feels as if the political sphere takes Moore more seriously. Moore enjoys many privileges that can help her get elected. She’s white, she’s retired, she owns two homes, and she’s held elected office before. While race, class, and several other factors influence the perceptions of these two candidates, ObeySumner’s openness about disability and the way it changes how they run their campaign cannot be ignored.
According to a Queer Politics study that is still under review, US voters penalize candidates for their health conditions on the ballot. In 2020, researchers tested the likelihood that voters in a sample of 6,000 people would support candidates with a variety of health conditions that fall under the umbrella of disability. According to the study, voters were less likely to support candidates with any of the tested disabilities. The study found that 70% of voters were less likely to support someone with bipolar disorder, and 20% of voters were less likely to support a candidate in a wheelchair.
ObeySumner feels the pressure to perform as much physical ability as they can in order to win over voters. They usually opt for their cane over their wheelchair while door-knocking because it looks less obviously like a mobility aid. When they go to doors in a wheelchair, they said some voters won’t even look at them and instead direct eye contact only at their husband.
Blahovec explained that a voter might see a visibly disabled candidate and immediately imagine what that person cannot do. If that person cannot perform the job exactly as their non-disabled peers, that voter may think of the candidate as unfit to lead. This discourse arose recently, when US Senator John Fetterman needed closed-captioning technology to accommodate his auditory processing issues after he had a stroke. ObeySumner told The Stranger they will also need live closed-captioning for all meetings.
But Blahovec said the ableist line of thought misplaces its judgment. It's not the disability that’s the problem, it's the society that refuses to accommodate, she said.
Blahovec further challenged ableist thinking: “Disabled people are adaptable. We’re creative. We’re problem-solvers. And we’re resilient because everyday we navigate a society that is not built for our needs. If those aren’t leadership qualities, I don’t know what is.”
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