NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ – In the first-ever quantitative study of disability among American politicians, Rutgers University researchers have found that about 10.3% of elected officials serving in federal, state and local government - a total of nearly 3,800 people - have disabilities.
That is more than five percentage points lower than the overall disability rate in the adult population, suggesting to researchers that people with disabilities are underrepresented in the halls of power. However, the report finds three notable exceptions: younger people with disabilities, Native Americans with disabilities, and disabled veterans of recent wars are well-represented in politics.
“People with disabilities cannot achieve equality unless they are part of government decision-making,” said Professor Lisa Schur, co-director of the Program for Disability Research in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations and co-author of the report. “While there appears to be progress, our findings show they are still underrepresented among elected officials at all levels of government.”
The researchers analyzed 2013-17 data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, which measures disability based on four kinds of impairment (hearing, visual, mobility, cognitive) and difficulty with basic activities inside or outside the home. The Rutgers report, Elected Officials with Disabilities, finds:
- Raw Numbers: An estimated 3,793 of the 36,779 elected officials in the U.S. have a disability.
- Disability Gap: 15.7 percent of all adults and 10.3% of elected officials have a disability. That is a gap of 5.4 percentage points, suggesting that people with disabilities are underrepresented in politics.
- Bright Spot: Three subgroups are well-represented: people with disabilities ages 18-34, Native Americans with disabilities, and disabled veterans from the Gulf War to present (including those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan).
- Big Difference: 12% of elected officials in local government have a disability, compared to 6.9% at the state level and 6.3% at the federal level.
- Disability Type: Hearing impairment is the most common disability among elected officials.
- Demographic Divide: The vast majority of politicians with disabilities are white, non-Hispanic men.
- Possible Growth: The number of elected officials with disabilities jumped from 8.5% in 2008-12 to 10.3% in 2013-17. However, the change is just within the survey’s margin of error.
- Research Note: Due to data limitations, these figures do not include unpaid or part-time elected officials. Only respondents who listed their primary job as elected official are represented in the report. In addition, the overall percentage of Americans with disabilities is likely understated because the Census Bureau’s questions may not capture several types of disability.
“Like other people with disabilities, politicians with disabilities often face stigma and questions about their ability to do the job. That’s why President Franklin D. Roosevelt hid his reliance on a wheelchair,” said Distinguished Professor Douglas Kruse, co-director of the Program for Disability Research in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations and co-author of the report. “But there has been progress as shown by passage of the ADA, and now we have prominent politicians in both parties who don’t hide their disabilities.”
The National Council on Independent Living (NCIL) maintains databases of candidates and current elected officials with disabilities, including prominent figures like Texas Governor Greg Abbott and U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois. In addition, NCIL recently launched Elevate, a non-partisan campaign training program for people with disabilities who are interested in running for public office.
The Rutgers report builds on NCIL’s work by providing advocates and policymakers with the first quantitative statistics on disability representation among elected officials. It is part of a larger project being conducted with Sally Friedman of the University at Albany-State University of New York and Richard Scotch of the University of Texas at Dallas.