The Five Challenges Facing Voters with Disabilities
Throughout this election season, the right and obligation to vote has been a major theme, and concerns have been raised about voters being blocked from polls and denied their chance to make their voices heard. One group that faces those challenges at every election, big or small, is persons with disabilities. Everything from registration forms to the polling places themselves may be inaccessible to those with special needs. Adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities may not realize that they even have the right to vote, and in some states guardianship arrangements may in fact have inadvertently disenfranchised them.
A study by Rutgers University found that the number of eligible voters with disabilities is growing faster than the number of eligible voters without disabilities. Projections from two Rutgers professors show that approximately one-sixth of November’s electorate will be comprised of people with disabilities. That number — 34.6 million — is a 10.8 percent increase from 2008. The number of eligible voters without disabilities, meanwhile, has grown by only 8.5 percent.
Despite the growing numbers, people with disabilities continue to be sidelined. The above study found that “while people with disabilities have made tremendous political gains over the past few decades, most notably with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, evidence indicates that they are not yet equal participants in the American political system, raising concerns that they remain marginalized and their interests are often neglected by politicians and elected officials.” The study further found that fully closing the disability gap would have led to 3.0 million more voters in 2008, potentially affecting many races and subsequent public policies.
Challenges Facing Voters with Disabilities
Individuals with disabilities face many challenges when it comes to voting. The following five roadblocks present particular difficulty, and parents need to be aware of their role in promoting and fighting for the rights of their adult children as voters and citizens.
1. Voter Registration
Voter registration, like so many other areas of accessibility, is covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act, with Title II specifically requiring state and local governments to make sure that those with disabilities will not face barriers when registering. In addition, the National Voter Registration Act requires state-funded programs that serve people with disabilities to give them both the opportunity to register to vote and the assistance they need, and to conduct registration at the person’s home if other services are provided there.
Online voter registration sites should be a boon to people with disabilities, but at present most are not fully accessible. Among the features not available are accessible forms, alternative text for images, color contrast, size options, and keyboard accessibility. According to “Access Denied,” a report by the American Civil Liberties Union that outlines the features required for accessibility, only California has a fully accessible online voter registration site. Other state governments have been slow to make the needed changes, although “the majority of the access barriers are quite easy to correct.”
2. Polling-Place Accessibility
People with disabilities who do manage to register to vote may find further barriers at the polling place. With votes being cast in a variety of public places, from school gyms to church basements to library meeting rooms, the ADA’s requirement that voting facilities be accessible is not always honored. A lack of accessible parking spaces may also be an issue. The Justice Department has issued an ADA Checklist for Polling Places and a publication on “Solutions for Five Common ADA Access Problems at Polling Places” that highlight the problems and suggest solutions.
Absentee balloting is one option for people with disabilities who want their vote to be counted but are concerned that they may not be able to actually access a voting booth. Another possibility is curbside voting, in which an election official comes to the voter’s car at the polling place to provide a ballot and any needed assistance. While these measures represent short-term solutions, in the long run people with disabilities and those who care about them should insist that their towns provide truly accessible voting places as required by law, so that each individual can cast a vote with his or her fellow citizens.
States have a wide variety of laws and policies regarding what makes an adult ineligible to vote. Yet many assume that adults with intellectual disability, developmental disability, or mental-health issues are ineligible simply on the basis of a diagnosis. Concern that such voters might be manipulated to vote according to their caregivers’ wishes has made it more difficult for those who actually do have an opinion and a desire to express it to do so.
Know the laws in your state and be ready to take any legal actions needed to authorize an enforce the right to vote of an adult with a disability who wants to participate in the process. Although the Americans With Disabilities act prevents poll workers from keeping people with disabilities from registering or voting, lack of training or awareness of the law may cause them to challenge the voting rights of people with disabilities.
Many parents seek guardianship of their young adults and are often encouraged to do so. While there may be many good reasons for seeking that protection, one unintended side effect of declaring adults incompetent to deal with their own affairs may be a loss of voting rights. Don’t assume that is necessarily the case, though — as mentioned above, state laws and policies vary on this issue. Some may not consider voting rights to be invalidated unless specifically stated in the guardianship agreement, while others may allow those rights to be returned even if they have been taken away.
Accommodations should be available to people with disabilities at their local polling place, including accessible voting machines for the visually impaired, sign-language interpreters for the hearing impaired, a chair for those who may have trouble standing in long lines, or help inside the voting booth for those who request it. Service animals should also be allowed. Ideally, poll workers would be trained to offer and allow these accommodations. If they are not available, people with disabilities may find it difficult or impossible to vote.
For many people with disabilities, encounters with uninformed members of the public can be painful and embarrassing. The thought of having voting rights challenged due to intellectual disabilities, communication difficulties, mental-health issues, disability-related behaviors, or other factors may keep prospective voters from venturing out to the polls. Lack of awareness training for poll workers makes a process that may already be physically difficult emotionally difficult for these voters and their families. No one should feel anything but pride in exercising their right to vote.
Resources on Voting for People with Disabilities
People with disabilities trying to pursue their right to vote or family members hoping to help can find additional information about disability-related election law on the following sites:
+ The Americans with Disabilities Act and Other Federal Laws Protecting the Rights of Voters with Disabilities and A Guide to Disability Rights Law from the U.S. Department of Justice
+ Disability Rights from the American Civil Liberties Union
+ The Ruderman White Paper: Voting Accessibility for People with Disabilities from the Ruderman Family Foundation
What has your experience with voting been as a person with a disability or the parent of an adult with special needs? Share in the comments.