The Right to Vote
by Susanna Sweeney-Martini
(Essay written in 2004.)
The secret ballot is a right Americans take for granted. American democracy
depends on the participation of all its citizens to elect its officials. When some voters cannot
participate equally, then all Americans lose. Many voters with disabilities
have never enjoyed the privilege of voting or voting secretly. For many disabled, elections
are just another instance of inaccessibility.
voters are being denied their voice? The National Voter Independence
Project conducted a survey of disabled voters in 1998. The survey found that 47% of disabled
people interviewed reported difficulties in finding an accessible path to the voting area and
that a person
using a wheelchair would only be able to enter if they agreed to be carried
into the building. 52% of polling places did not have an appropriately-sized voting booth for persons in wheelchairs. 81% did not have
ballots available in alternative formats for the blind or visually impaired
so they could vote privately.
The General Accounting Office released a report in 2001 stating that
only 16% of the polling places in the 2000 Presidential election had no impediments
for people with disabilities (read the pdf | txt). If people with disabilities voted at the same
rate as people without disabilities, there would have been 3.2 million additional
voters in 2000.
Many people with disabilities do not wish to have special arrangements made
for them to vote on different days, by mail or in another part of town. They
wish to vote as able-bodied people on the same day, in the same place and
during the same hours.
Policies are needed, and are now beginning to be written by states. The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) requires that by 2007, states' information and voting materials be accessible to people with all disabilities, including intellectual, mobility, sensory, dexterity-related and emotional disabilities. To help the states define and set up these accessible sites, 8 national disability groups collaborated on voting accessibility to create a source of information both for the states and the disabled: GoVoter.org.
Susanna Sweeney-Martini poses with her local elections
department sign when she registered to vote in 2004.
What kinds of things could be done to make voting less difficult for disabled people, and in a way that ensures they are not made to stand out from other voters? For a start, it would be helpful if rules and procedures on disabled access to voting could be written as
law, rather than left to the discretion of election officials in different states.
People with disabilities should be involved in writing these laws along with
the rest of the community.
Some solutions might involve special services at voting stations or even mobile
voting stations. Perhaps disabled voters could be allowed to vote at the curbside
of polling places, or be allowed to apply to vote at another voting station
other than their assigned station if the other is accessible. But all voting sites
should be fully accessible to voters with disabilities. And what would
Ground floor locations with no obstacles would be best. Slip-resistant access
ramps are necessary. Door width is also an issue. Additional seating should
be provided for physically impaired voters while they wait to vote. Reserved
disabled parking should be available. For the hard of hearing, there should
be helpers with the ability to use sign language in order to answer questions
and to demonstrate. Overhead lighting should be good enough for the visually
impaired, and the use of large, bold type on the ballots, forms
and information sheets is recommended. There should be Braille ballots available for blind voters these are already being used in Canada. As for the voting booth itself, the voting machine should be at a lower level
and ballot boxes should be at a wheelchair-accessible height.
Learn more about disability and political participation from the National Organization on Disability.
Each state is now taking up the job of writing policy. The more that each of us can do to encourage persons with
disabilities voting rights, the more democracy will be served. The disabled
community has come a long way from 1974. More and more people with disabilities
are voting. There are many organizations, committees and associations in the
world working to help improve the voting policy. A personal goal of mine is to join the American Association
of People with Disabilities (AAPD), because my goal in life is to provide leadership
for people with disabilities. I feel that it is people with disabilities' responsibility
to help themselves to succeed in their lives. The goals of AAPD
to further the productivity, independence, full citizenship, and total integration
of people with disabilities are what the disabled community needs to focus on in order
to prevail. The bottom line is that the overall success of people with disabilities
lays not in a new government program but in the people themselves.
Susanna Sweeney-Martini wrote this essay shortly after finishing her sophomore year at the University of Washington in 2004. Due in a great part to participating in the production of "Freedom Machines," her interest in marine biology has taken a sideline to her growing interest in disability studies and communication.