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NEXT L.A. | Ideas: Disabled Voters

Urging Untapped Group to Speak Out

September 03, 1996|FRANK MESSINA

Shawn Casey O'Brien says voting is something disabled people can do for themselves.

"Able-bodied people can't do it for us," says the executive director of Unique People, a nonpartisan group in Los Angeles that seeks to help the disabled represent their own interests through the ballot box.

About 2,000 disabled people in California belong to the group, which reaches out to the developmentally disabled and people with physical impairments.

"We think that anyone who can register, who can tell you about their life, has a reason and a right to vote," O'Brien said.

Unique People was started in 1993 and has worked at building a following while aiming for involvement in the 1996 presidential election. O'Brien said money has been coming in slowly--about $14,000 raised since last year--but is starting to pick up.

"We've planted a lot of seeds in the past three years and now everyone is starting to get excited," he said.

O'Brien, who uses crutches, sees the voting project as a chance to reach a huge, untapped group of potential voters--the millions of U.S. citizens who are disabled.

"I'm really surprised nobody has done this before in a large, coordinated way," he said. "If we can get empowered and get some political muscle, we can do some really good things for ourselves.

"We don't have money or celebrity," he said. "But we do have numbers."

To convert the numbers into voters, Unique People has established a toll-free information number--(800) 459-VOTE--and put out an election pamphlet for the disabled.

The booklet describes how the disabled can vote, but also tells them why they should make their voices heard at the ballot box.

"The second half of the booklet is about many of the issues of interest to disabled citizens," O'Brien said. "We list things like spending cuts that have been made to programs for disabled citizens."

For the disabled and their advocates, the power to vote can be intoxicating, he said.

"It's something that the ordinary person takes for granted," O'Brien said. "But it's a freedom and a right that strikes a chord deep inside a disabled citizen."

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