- Glenn Russell
- Maria Rinaldi
Not long after she ran for the state legislature in 2018, Kate Larose slipped during an ice storm and hit her head. She was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury.
Until then, the St. Albans resident had lived an active civic life — volunteering for political campaigns, working with activist organizations and engaging with local government. But she soon found that the auditory and visual stimulus of a crowded conference room or a rowdy march overwhelmed her brain.
"I realized this was not something I could do in my new reality. For a long time, a lot of my community and political activity was just shut down," Larose said. "Then the pandemic happened, and my whole world of community involvement opened up again because of the virtual opportunities."
The spread of COVID-19 has threatened the health, economic security and social connections of many Vermonters. But for some members of the disability community, it's provided new opportunities to take part in previously inaccessible activities. They can phone-bank from home, join remote campaign meetings and even take part in legislative committee hearings.
"Things have opened up a great deal for people who have access to the internet and computers and who can do Zoom meetings," said Sarah Launderville, executive director of the Vermont Center for Independent Living. "I think that more people have been able to be engaged in the process."
That's been particularly important in a year that has featured an unprecedented presidential election, a national reckoning with systemic racism and the economic consequences of COVID-19.
The changes, which Larose calls "a hidden gift of the pandemic," have enabled her to engage at both the local and national levels. When her city council and school board began holding remote meetings, she was able to log in, turn off the lights, close her eyes and focus entirely on the business at hand — employing some of the strategies she's learned to overcome her disability. And when she learned that the Democratic National Convention would be conducted remotely, rather than in Milwaukee, she decided to run for delegate. She won, becoming one of a dozen Vermonters representing those who voted for Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) presidential campaign.
"It's created an on-ramp for people with disabilities to be able to be engaged and involved," said Larose, who recently moved to Canaan.
Four years ago, Jericho resident Maria Rinaldi also served as a Sanders delegate to the Democratic convention. Rinaldi, who is paralyzed from the chest down due to a spinal cord injury, traveled to Philadelphia with her partner, Mike Csele, in a motor home customized to accommodate her wheelchair.
Though she had been promised she would have equal access to convention activities, Rinaldi spent much of her time in Philadelphia dealing with logistical nightmares, including convincing security officials to allow Csele to park the RV near the convention center. When Rinaldi finally got inside, she found that she was seated far from the rest of the Vermont delegation.
"It was very disappointing," she said.
This time around, Rinaldi assumed she wouldn't be able to reprise her role because her compromised immune system made a trip to Milwaukee unwise. When she learned she could attend from her house, however, she decided to run again for the delegation and won, representing Sanders voters. "As I thought about it, I realized that going remote is making it the most accessible to anyone — whether it's someone with a disability or someone who couldn't normally afford to go to such an event," she said.
Neither Larose nor Rinaldi believes the convention went off without a hitch. They were frustrated that certain events — such as the haggling over the party's platform — occurred without much input from rank-and-file delegates. "It turned into a more controlled event than the actual process usually is," Rinaldi said. "But that's more about them and not the tools."
Certain aspects of pandemic life have been particularly surprising to Rinaldi. "When you're on Zoom, people can't necessarily see your disability. They're just seeing me from the chest up, so I'm actually having people interact with me who don't even know I'm in a wheelchair," she said. "That's a pretty interesting experience that I've never had before — because sometimes the way people see you is the way they treat you ... It just gave me more confidence."
Emily Ahtunan of Montpelier has spent years volunteering for political campaigns and engaging in activism. But her systemic lupus has impeded her mobility and made it difficult, at times, to leave her home.
"For folks like myself who are mostly homebound, pandemic normal is like our normal," she said. "When March hit and everybody was staying at home, it was like, So now everybody gets to understand."
Ahtunan had already been volunteering her time texting voters for various political campaigns and causes. But now, she found, every campaign was holding online events, trainings and volunteer opportunities. "It just feels like there's no escape from it, which is good because hopefully it means that more people are tuning in. But for those of us who've been doing it, it's like, Wow."
The pandemic hasn't increased access for everybody. Launderville notes that some campaigns and public bodies have neglected to make closed captioning or American Sign Language interpretation available during online gatherings. Some legislative committees and selectboards have failed to properly broadcast their meetings. And when some voting locations were moved to more spacious venues to encourage social distancing during the state's primaries, not all were wheelchair-accessible, Launderville said.
Online participation also requires access to working computers and functioning broadband — a luxury in some regions of Vermont — as well as a certain technological savvy. That can make it more challenging for older Vermonters to take part.
Earl Wright, a 77-year-old Burlington resident, readily acknowledges that digital campaigning is not for him. "I hate computer technology," he said.
Wright has been volunteering for Democratic and Progressive campaigns since he moved from Texas to Vermont in the mid-1980s, and he's used to calling voters from crowded party headquarters.
When Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman's gubernatorial campaign went remote, volunteer coordinator Daniel Brown tried to train Wright on the software it uses to coordinate phone-banking from home. Brown eventually gave up and opted instead to print out call sheets and scripts and deliver them to Wright by bicycle.
"When the weather was good, it was a good excuse to get on the bike path," Brown said.
Wright says he sometimes misses traditional phone-banking, in part because of the opportunity for social interaction it provided. "I've met a lot of neat people doing the phone-banking — and there's always free food," he said. "But one thing that is an advantage is, I'm very comfortable at home. And sometimes I'm more efficient this way because a lot of us tend to get a little absorbed with chat when we're doing a phone bank."
It's too soon to know whether the options that are available today will outlast the pandemic, but Rinaldi is hopeful that the experience will at least open people's eyes to what it's like to be stuck at home or unable to attend certain events.
"People don't really think about that," she said. "There's a lot of things that I have to think about that the average person doesn't really consider."