Voting is "a fundamental characteristic of citizenship," says Ari Ne'eman, co-founder of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network and presidential appointee to the National Council on Disability. "People with disabilities deserve to be recognized as equal citizens and equal participants in society. When our voting rights are denied, it's a fundamental undermining of our equality under the law."
Yet with election day dawning, access to that very right will be denied at polling places across the nation. Many disabled people are still disenfranchised by default, many polling places remain inaccessible despite the Americans with Disabilities Act, and turnout for disabled people generally trails the general population by around 20 percentage points.
Though people with different disabilities face different problems, they tend to all come together around this issue. "I have seen my blind friends saying, 'If this law affects people with wheelchairs, I won't vote for the person supporting that,'" says Stephanie Woodward, Director of Advocacy at the Center for Disability Rights. "I see people with disabilities who aren't affected by an issue who still vote in support of others." That bloc-like thinking is, disability advocates argue, the only way to fight for access at the polls.
"When you take away our access to vote, it's a bigger slap in the face than anything else," Woodward says. "The only population that can genuinely be denied access to vote is the disabled population."
Inaccessible polling places isn't the only issue Woodward and Ne'eman are contending with. Some states don't allow adults living under guardianship--as many intellectually disabled people do--to vote. These statutes have been fought by, among others, Clinton Gode, who has Down Syndrome and longed for the right to vote at 18. He was crushed when an Arizona court assigned guardianship to his parents, thereby stripping him of his voting rights. It took seven years for him to win the right to cast a ballot last year.
It's not just people with cognitive and developmental disabilities who face problems at the polls, however.
"Earlier this year, the New York legislature actually voted to use inaccessible voting machines," Woodward says. "[At many polling places] the one accessible machine is not plugged in, not ready to use. In one case it was being used as a coat rack. The poll workers don't have training, so they think it's reasonable to offer to vote for people. People also feel segregated and pulled out by using a separate machine."
Susan Mizner, the ACLU's Disability Counsel, is also concerned about voter ID laws, which have come under fire for affecting racial minorities far more than they do whites. But these laws hurt people with disabilities as well, Mizner says, because they tend not to have photo ID cards.
"People with disabilities don't drive at three times the rate of the general population, don't travel abroad, don't have employment IDs, don't have college and university cards," she explains. "We're quite concerned that people with disabilities are going to face barriers at the polls where federal ID is a requirement."
In 2012, disabled voters faced all sorts of problems. According to Arkansas Times, when Deaf voter Ava Adams went to the polls in Arkansas, she was forced to cast a provisional ballot, a situation complicated by the fact that she had difficulty communicating with polling workers, who were inflexible when she requested accommodations and help with her vote.
Among blind people, voting presents an obvious obstacle: It's difficult to mark a ballot if you can't see it. Alameda County, California voter Richard Rueda, poll workers decided that the solution to this problem was to read his ballot aloud to him in public, and force him to dictate his choices to them, meaning he had to hope that the poll worker marked the ballot correctly. (Rueda and four other plaintiffs are suing the county for not making voting accessible to the visually impaired.)
New York City in particular makes it hard on wheelchair users. Susan Scheer, a wheelchair user in Manhattan, was forced to fill out her ballot on the hood of a car outside the polling place because she couldn't get in the door.
All of these accessibility issues have different solutions, but the underlying problem, Ne'eman says, "stems from the same place," which is why the disabled community as a whole is uniting to fight for the right to vote.
"There's a recognition that if we don't all hang together, we're all going to hang separately," he adds.
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