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Independent Living News & Policy from the National Council on Independent Living

Elevate Blog: Rajah Sandor on Being a Disabled Campaign Staffer

In October 2020, we sat down with Rajah Sandor to learn about his experiences as a disabled campaign professional, his successes, obstacles he has faced, and advice he has for other disabled people who want to work on campaigns.

Tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you become a campaign professional, and what do you do now?

My name is D. Rajah Sandor, I go by Rajah. I’ve almost completed my 31st year, I’m Indian, and I was born without arms. I definitely came to campaigns later than the typical staffer does, I was 27 the first time I was a paid organizer. I got involved in a local mayoral election in 2015 but did not truly start with campaigns until the primary of 2016. By the end of the primary, I had essentially become a volunteer organizer which got me an interview to be an organizer with the PA coordinated campaign. And that was really it. Campaigns have a very addictive nature to them and so as long as the next gig appeared, I’d take it. Over the last 4 years, I have worked on every type of race except a U.S. Senate, and have served as an organizer, a department head, and as the campaign manager. I am currently the Western Regional Director of the Pennsylvania Senate Democratic Campaign Committee and have been since July.

Why do you think it is important for people with disabilities to volunteer or work on campaigns? 

  1. I think the more people with disabilities that interact with campaigns, the more we normalize it.
  2. By being involved in campaigns, you present the opportunity for the candidate to understand disability issues better.
  3. To force these spaces to become more accessible. Campaigns are all about doing things as cheaply as possible. If they think they can get away with using a space that isn’t ADA accessible, they will.
  4. Because this work is important. For a campaign to truly be successful, even outside of winning or losing the election, the campaign needs to be representative of the community, and the only way we can make sure the disability community is represented is by showing up.
  5. And finally, because we have things to fight for. There are still a number of different ways that our society is and is allowed to be ableist and society will continue to be ableist as long as we let them. Getting involved with campaigns, to elect leaders who care about our issues, or with issue campaigns surrounding our issues is a way we can fight to make our society more equitable, both for our community and other disenfranchised communities.

Did you experience any barriers while working on campaigns? 

Answering this question is hard for me, because I’m sure I have experienced barriers, but by in large I’m too stubborn to notice them as barriers until later. I will say gaining employment was tough, especially in the beginning. Before I was hired as an organizer with the PA coordinated I had easily applied for 15+ organizer jobs and I remember feeling frustrated enough that I disclosed my disability in that interview and said, I know I can do I just need someone to believe me. Even after being an organizer, I was unemployed until March of the following year, when I showed up at a gubernatorial primary campaign where a friend was working & that was understaffed and I made myself useful enough that they had to put me on staff. The only other barrier of note, is the fact that I essentially broke even during my first 2 years working on campaigns, because of shared rides costs. As I don’t drive, early in my career I would let whomever I disclosed my disability to know that I would take on my transportation costs for fear of being seen as too expensive or even a financial liability. 

What have been some of your successes as a campaign professional? 

I won the first race I managed, by 793 votes. I have developed & executed multiple successful Get Out the Vote & Election Day strategies. I have largely taught myself what I need to know to understand voting data & craft a successful DVC (direct voter contact) program.

What can campaigns do to make it easier for people with disabilities to work on them?

Make sure they are in accessible spaces. Hire folks with disabilities. Include our issues before we get there. Get rid of some of the classist expectations, that you should be able to pick up and move, or do this work without healthcare, or able to commit to 10-14 hour days at least 6 days a week. 

What advice would you give to people with disabilities who want to work on or volunteer for campaigns?

Do it. Understand that it is going to be tough, but do it. Don’t be deterred by the 25th person who underestimates what you bring to the table, just be a badass. You’re going to have to make space for yourself, but it’s important that you take up that space. If you’re thinking about actually working on a campaign, make sure you that this really is what you want for the next X number of months of your life because winning isn’t guaranteed and some days you feel the ableism so much more strongly. Find friends with disabilities that you can vent to, that can relate. You are clearing the way for whoever is coming next. Fight like hell to be treated equally so that whoever follows may be able to fight a little less.

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