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Sarasota Candidate Aims To Become First State Legislator With A Disability

A candidate with a difference is running for State Senate District 23 in Sarasota. And if she wins, this difference could make a bit of history.

Olivia Babis rolls up to a home on a street in south Sarasota that looks promising for getting out the vote. A volunteer with her knocks on the door.

"Hi, are you Judith? Yes. Hi, my name is Olivia," she says. "We're just going around talking to voters, asking that you vote on November 6th asking for your support on the ballot.

"I'll be there," is the response. "I'll go down to the corner at the church and vote. Thank you and I hope we can count on your vote."

There's no sidewalk here, it's a gravel driveway, there's a do not disturb sign on the gate saying "vicious dog," which turns out to be a chihuahua in the window. When I first meet Olivia Babis, she's in a black and red wheelchair and she's tapping on her phone, looking at houses that are NPA's - no political affiliation - using her big toe.

In addition to having to rely on a wheelchair, Babis was born without arms.

"We do let people know that if I win this election, I will be the first person with a disability ever elected to the Florida Legislature," she said. "And a lot of people, I think, are shocked to hear that. That it's 2018 and we've never had a person with a disability ever elected."

So she has to bring a "canvas buddy" when she goes door to door, to not only knock on those doors, but help her navigate a maze of broken driveways and blocked pathways.

"We deal with streets that don't necessarily have sidewalks a lot of the time, so we're looking out for cars and making sure we don't get run over," Babis said. "Because I can't get necessarily on the side of the street and the grass because of the ditches and the chair might get stuck. So these are all things that can add an extra layer of complications to things."

Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
Olivia Babis and her "canvassing buddy" struggle to get her wheelchair to knock on front doors

But a bigger obstacle may be the mindset of voters who may equate a physical disability with an inability to do the job. And even though politicians like double amputee Tammy Duckworth have been elected to the U.S. Senate, no one who looks remotely like Babis has ever been elected to the state Legislature. It's a common scenario, says Curt Decker, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Disability Rights Network.

"To turn that around, to say that this is a fully functional person who could be a politician and an elected official, and carry out her duties like anyone else," Decker says, "that is a concept that still is difficult for people to gather."

Her candidacy came on a bit of a whim. Babis works as a peer mentor at the Suncoast Center for Independent Living. She had no intention of running for state Senate until Greg Steube decided to try for a seat in Congress. And when Joe Gruters, the former head of the Sarasota Republican Party and a local state Representative looked like he was going to walk into Steube's seat, the local Democratic chairwoman, JoAnne DeVries, gave her a call.

"And I kind of went - ahhhhhhh," Babis laughed, "you know, not really expecting that kind of response or even thinking about making a run for state Senate as my first race."

But when they looked at the demographics of her south Sarasota district - which skews much older than the rest of the Senate - Babis saw a lot of voters who could identify with her disabilities. They're concerned about health care, she says.. and a lot of them can't get around because of limited public transportation.

What Babis is doing isn't for the faint of heart - going door to door, putting yourself out in front of groups, baring your physical limitations to the world. But, she's been dealing with this her whole life.

"So I think people really respect me for the fact that I'm taking this on," she said. "It's kind of trying to shatter another glass ceiling again, but also that I will be standing up for issues that are important to a lot of people in this district that many people just don't think about - because it's not affecting them."

Decker says even recent candidates like Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Senator Max Cleland of Georgia minimized their disabilitities when they ran for office.

"There's always sort of a head shot, or from the upper body up, because I think they understand that it sends a message of possible weakness, or inability," he said. "I mean, look at FDR - who did everything in his power to hide the fact that he used crutches and had polio."

Decker says even thought that was many years ago, the stereotypical notion that people with physical disabilities aren't up to the job remains.

"And so I think that has discouraged people from getting into the political process," he said. "We do a lot of work just getting them to the polling places so they can vote independently and privately. And so it'll be interesting to see if she can change enough minds to win."

Still, Decker believes we have made tremendous progress with the Americans With Disabilities Act to allow the physically disabled to become - almost - fully integrated in our society.

Babis has until November 6th to change those minds.

Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
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