On a chilly fall evening, a group of state and local politicians who normally take the stage suddenly found themselves relegated to the audience — spectators in a gathering crowd of people with disabilities.

In a role reversal, the candidates mostly stood listening at a Richfield park as disability activists from across the Twin Cities pushed their campaign for change. Between speeches calling for inclusion, people with a range of physical and intellectual disabilities — including many in wheelchairs — pressed candidates about their positions on access to health care, accessible housing and the state's severe shortage of caregivers.

"If you are not including the disability community in your campaign, then you are missing out on a whole lot of voters," Judy Moe, of Richfield, who organized the event and has an adult daughter with a physical disability, told the crowd.

Minnesota's disability community is flexing its political muscle this election season — organizing candidate forums, knocking on doors and developing strategies to get people elected who will champion their causes. Tired of being ignored, a new generation of young disability activists is entering civic life — and turning out to vote like never before. And in a change from past practice, they are pushing their own platform of issues rather than campaigning for candidates.

Disability advocates are seeking to build on the momentum of 2020, when voter turnout by Minnesotans with disabilities surged by nearly 30 percentage points. The COVID-19 pandemic that overwhelmed hospitals and strained the social safety net hit the disability community particularly hard. People with disabilities died in disproportionate numbers from the coronavirus in part because of unequal access to health care, researchers have found. And a severe shortage of caregivers has made it difficult for people who need them to resume their pre-pandemic lives, contributing to their isolation.

But the hardships of the past few years have also fostered solidarity in the disability movement. "The pandemic made it abundantly clear that our values — that of caring and supporting each other — have not been prioritized and that needs to change," said Birch Cappetta, 39, of Duluth, who has multiple sclerosis and is a member of the DFL Disability Caucus. "Our humanity is at stake."

Because of transportation and other barriers, voter turnout among people with disabilities has historically been lower than the overall population. But the so-called "disability voter gap" all but vanished in 2020, when an explosion in absentee voting leveled the playing field. Turnout among Minnesotans with disabilities surged from 47% in 2018 to 76% in 2020 — and was just shy of the 78% turnout rate for those without disabilities, according to researchers at Rutgers University. All told, more than 340,000 Minnesotans with disabilities voted in 2020 — making it one of the state's largest voting blocs.

The stronger turnout also reflects a new wave of political organizing within the disability community — one that has echoes of the push more than three decades ago to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act, the landmark 1990 law that provides civil rights protections to people with disabilities.

Since 2018, two dozen of the state's most prominent disability organizations — including those advocating for people who are blind, deaf or have developmental disorders like autism — have banded together under the name Rev UP MN, to promote voter turnout and disability issues. In the runup to the Nov. 8 election, the coalition has become increasingly ambitious — holding Zoom forums with legislative candidates on both sides of the aisle. During these events, Rev UP MN members have pushed candidates to address a range of issues — including accessible housing, Medicaid benefits and the workforce crisis.

Minnesota's disability community has been further galvanized by concerns over voter access — and comments made by one of the candidates in the race for secretary of state. In a September 2020 radio interview, which has drawn national headlines, Republican secretary of state candidate Kim Crockett questioned whether people with disabilities and non-English speakers should be allowed to vote, while she discussed a Minnesota Supreme Court ruling that upheld a state law permitting people to access help at the ballot box.

Secretary of State Steve Simon, who is running for his third term, has condemned Crockett for her remarks. "It's just awful all around to suggest that people who use tools that the law provides them ... are somehow suspect or that we should question their eligibility," said Simon, who has an 8-year-old son with developmental and cognitive disabilities, in an interview this week. "It's not only appalling, it's disqualifying."

In response to multiple interview requests, the Crockett campaign emailed a link to her website asserting that her comments were taken out of context.

At rallies and at Zoom forums, young activists have also been calling on people to embrace their disabilities as a strength — by emphasizing how their demands for stronger systems of care and access to the ballot box will benefit everyone. They have been encouraging people with disabilities to amplify their voices by using #CriptheVote as a hashtag on Twitter and Facebook posts.

Nikki Villavicencio, a City Council member from Maplewood, knows firsthand how difficult it can be for people with disabilities to be politically engaged. Villavicencio has arthrogryposis, a condition that leaves her joints rigid. When she filed to run for office in 2018, she had to sign the forms at the elections office with a pen placed between her toes. Like other young activists, she has been urging people to be open and proud about their disabilities — and how their concerns align with those of other historically disadvantaged groups.

"If you are born marginalized, you become marginalized, and you live a life that's different from the mainstream," Villavicencio said at a get-out-the-vote event last week organized by the DFL Disability Caucus. "You can't get away from that. And that is why you bring that to the forefront."

As they made their way to an early-voting site this week, Judy Moe and her 26-year-old daughter, Raven Moe, who uses a wheelchair because of a spinal condition known as spina bifida, reflected on the unique challenges they have faced in the political arena.

Once, at a City Council meeting in Richfield, Raven pushed herself to the front of the room to raise concerns about a dangerous roundabout for people in wheelchairs. But the podium was too high for her to reach from her wheelchair, and Raven had to sit awkwardly in front of the crowd for 15 minutes while staff scrambled to accommodate her. On other occasions, Raven and her mother have had to call off plans to attend political fundraisers after discovering the events were in private homes that lacked wheelchair access.

The Moes, who founded the Richfield Disability Advocacy Partnership, have put together a 33-page guide on how to make political campaigns and events accessible.

"It's easy to get discouraged by experiences like that," Judy said as she pushed her daughter in the wheelchair through the rain. "But you have to keep showing up at these mainstream events and keep asking the tough questions, because otherwise they'll just ignore you."