Voters with Disabilities Need Better Access to Polls

For people with disabilities, voting alongside our neighbors should be a right not a privilege. But accessible polls are still considered a luxury that a nation at war cannot afford.

More than one out of five U.S. adults with disabilities have been unable to vote in presidential or congressional elections because of barriers at, or getting to, the polls, according to a September study by the National Organization on Disability. This translates into more than 8 million potential voters.

These are not new problems nor are they unknown to voting officials. A 2001 General Accounting Office study reported that 84 percent of surveyed polling places had a barrier that prevents a person with a disability from voting.

On Election Day, those barriers will greet the soldiers who have returned from Iraq with a disability.

The steps at the polling place may be too much for your elderly mother who had a hip replacement. And they could force your friend with impaired vision to trust his secret vote to a stranger.

You may yourself have a disability. You may wonder what class of citizen you are if you have to mail in a ballot while your non-disabled neighbors demand their right to vote in person.

The new computerized voting machines that so many people are concerned about actually assist those of us who are disabled.

We could see so much fear of what might go wrong with computerized ballots that we return to antiquated voting equipment that violates the rights of an entire class of people.

Disability discrimination doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It works hand in hand with other forms of disenfranchisement. Native Americans and African Americans have the highest rates of disability of any race or ethnic group, with 22 percent and 20 percent, respectively. Yet few people make the connection between types of segregation.

Denying people with disabilities access to the polls is a largely unread chapter in an ongoing history of segregation and exclusion in the United States.

People with disabilities are part of this country and its history. Like women and minorities, we have inherited a sorry legacy of being shut out of the polls.

People with disabilities do not have special needs when it comes to voting. We have equal needs — for privacy and access. Our civil rights matter, and so do our votes.

Originally published through the Progressive Media Project
2004

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