FAIRFAX — For Kyle Spading, getting into his 2016 precinct caucus was about as difficult as any pass pattern he ran as tight end for the University of Iowa Hawkeyes.
“It was like a lot of places — an uncertified ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) ramp, a 30-inch door, a hairpin turn immediately inside the door, a narrow passageway through the kitchen,” he recalls. “We almost had to take a wall out.”
Spading, a quadriplegic who uses a wheelchair to get around since dislocating his neck when his minivan rolled over in 2011 — a year after playing in the Orange Bowl — doesn’t want to go through that ordeal in 2020.
“The officials were very nice. You can always find nice Iowans to help out,” Spading said from his apartment in a Fairfax house he shares with his parents, Kay and Bob Spading. “But as important and as prestigious as the Iowa caucuses are, you’d think we’d be beyond those kinds of issues.”
Spading, 32, is part of a campaign by Disability Rights Iowa, or DRI, to remove obstacles to participation in the Iowa caucuses. Now a DRI board member, Spading describes himself as a “huge disability advocate from a young age” when he helped his parents advocate for a younger brother who is autistic.
The Des Moines-based organization is working with candidates and the political parties to address not only physical barriers to participation, but anything that would be an impediment for an Iowan with a disability.
“The Iowa caucuses are beloved,” said Emanuel Smith, an advocate and investigator with DRI. “They add to the flavor of the political process, so it’s important that they be open to everyone, especially those who might not have thought they could participate.”
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DRI is educating people involved in the caucuses about accommodations needed for Iowans with disabilities.
About 300,000 Iowans with disabilities are registered to vote, according to Secretary of State Paul Pate, who has worked with DRI on accommodations such as curbside voting.
In some cases, it’s as simple as having proper signs and accessible parking, 36-inch wide doorways and aisles, and ramps.
DRI also recommends microphones so everyone can be heard and encourages caucus planners to have American Sign Language signers or Communication Access Real-time Translation transcription at caucus sites, DRI Executive Director Jane Hudson said.
DRI became involved, Hudson said, when it received calls from people who had difficulty or were unable to participate in their caucuses in 2016 because of the lack of accommodations.
“2016 was a wake-up call,” said Anne Matte, DRI communications and voting outreach coordinator. “There were so many problems, so many people, that it showed the system needed improvement.”
This cycle, DRI is trying to be pro-active by working with parties and campaigns to educate them on the needs of Iowans with disabilities.
“They’re trying hard,” Hudson said. “Their hearts are in the right place.”
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However, she’s worried about the implementation of accommodations, whether the parties are starting early enough to find and test drive equipment.
DRI investigator Smith, who like Spading uses a wheelchair, is encouraged by the addition of virtual caucuses because in-person caucusing “poses a real challenge.”
“But most people want to caucus in person,” Smith said.
Accessibility, he continued, means different things to each person, so it’s important for people to speak up about the accommodations they need.
DRI has resources available for caucusgoers, campaigns and caucus organizers at drivoting.org. The site includes tips on how to make political and social media campaigns accessible, a basic access guide including low-cost accommodations and videos of candidates talking about inclusion and accessibility.
“We’re not asking for perfection, but for campaigns and the parties to be more aware, to make improvements,” Hudson said.
“To take away the barriers,” added Matte.
“It doesn’t take much,” Spading said. “A little extra thought, a little extra planning.”
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