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Monday, September 21, 2009

David Paterson and the Price of Access

David Paterson is in the news again. No he did not stick his foot in his mouth, bring up the issue of race, change his facial hair, or talk about whether Obama wants him to run for re-election. The news is far more mundane. Governor Paterson signed 60 bills into law. I am not impressed with what he signed into law nor am I pleased with the 18 bills he vetoed. What did Paterson sign into law? Golly controversial laws that strengthen summer camp inspections and another that will allow residents to receive email updates when a sex offender moves into their neighborhood. Great, Peterson wants to keep children safe. That is a real vote getter. As to the laws Paterson vetoed one of the eighteen was of interest. The law of interest would have required each polling place in New York meet federal guidelines for physically disabled voters within the next six months. This too is not controversial. The ADA was signed into law almost 20 years ago and one would think all polling places would be accessible. Two decades seems like more than enough time to insure access is routine. But no, like the rest of America, access at polling places in New York is hit and miss. Why did Paterson veto this bill? As many have pointed out, this is an odd bill for a man with a disability to veto. Paterson has argued in vetoing 18 bills he will save the state of New York $28 million in the next two years. Paterson has argued the time frame of the vetoed legislation was "simply too onerous". Instead, he will work with local governments that have a federal waiver for access. I am not sure what this means. What will Paterson do in the next year that is any different than what has been done or not done in the past? Six months does not appear to be unreasonable or a burden in terms of making a polling place accessible. The federal guidelines are clear cut, have been in existence for a long time and surely all must agree access is a priority.

Please note the last few words of the above paragraph--read carefully--surely access is a priority. Yes, access is a priority. It always is subject of discussion and all agree it is the right thing to do. Many point out it is the law. Yet a funny thing always seems to happen between the drawing board meetings when one and all agree access is the right thing to do and when construction or renovation takes place. Access, once believed to be a requirement, becomes a problem at some point. Golly those pesky elevators and electric door openers sure do cost a lot of money. Do we really need every entrance to be accessible? Is it required to have an electric door opener at every entrance? And, wow, that ramp sure does take up a tremendous amount of space and is a real eye sore. Why can't people with a disability enter through the backdoor? We can give anyone who is disabled a "special key". The rationalizations are endless and signify that access is valued in theory but when it comes to budgeting is always the first line item cut. Deleting access is a great cost savings. Why have two accessible bathrooms when one will suffice. Well you need more than one bathroom because every constipated person in America gravitates to the one damn bathroom stall I can enter. Electric door openers are needed at the entrance to the library because people often have their hands full of books they are trying to take out or return. I know this because I often drop books when opening and closing library doors. And Governor Paterson when I vote I would like to vote in the town where I live. I hardly think this is much to ask. We do live in a Democracy! But no, I must send in an absentee ballot or vote in a nearby town that has an accessible polling place. Despite my complaint I am lucky. I have a car and getting to the next town is no problem. What about the members of the community that do not own a car? No mass transportation is available, two acre zoning is the norm where I live, and I am sure people do not vote because they do not have access to a polling place.

The skeptic in me would love to point out that it is in Paterson's best interest to insure all polling places are accessible. Paterson needs all the votes he can get as he faces an uphill battle for his re-election. Paterson however knows the disability community well. Too many of us do not vote and few politicians see us as a voting block--Paterson included. Here is the additional problem. Paterson has no connection to the disability community. If he did, he would not have vetoed the bill in question regardless of the cost or time frame. He should know you cannot place a price tag on one's civil rights and ability to access a polling place. When elected Paterson talked about the discrimination he encountered as a young man because he was blind. He overcame the needless obstacles that were placed in his way when trying to access an education. But I think he has forgotten where he came from. Like many successful politicians, he is insulated from reality and surrounded by handlers that control the ebb and flow of information. I sincerely doubt he is connected with others who are blind and is distant from the vibrant disability community. Perhaps he has always maintained this distance. I do not know the man but it is obvious he desperately wants to retain his position. Maybe I am not being fair as every politician is self centered. Moreover, Paterson was not elected to the governorship and perhaps he feels as though he has something to prove. Regardless, the bottom line is that he knows access is not valued and hence an easy item to cut. Given the dismal state of the economy, many such cuts are being made. However, this veto is dead wrong and sends a very bad message. Access is a "burden" and federal waivers are not only acceptable but Paterson is willing to let them remain. I may be all wrong and for a different take on Paterson please read Planet of the Blind today. Kuusisto has a post, "Why Governor Paterson Doesn't Get It", that I found thought provoking. We may have a different take on the matter but the important point is that the veto is as wrong as wrong can be. I hope Paterson realizes this and his veto was just a matter of politics. Yet sometimes a politician must go against the grain and this was surely one of those times for Paterson. Thus he not only lost an opportunity but lost my vote as well.

7 comments:

Laura(southernxyl) said...

Well, William, I'm not a member of the disability community at all. I'm a member of the human race and this kind of thing depresses hell out of me and always has.

I don't think it's asking too much of people to do the right thing. As you say, ADA is 20 years old, for pete's sake.

william Peace said...

Laura, Welcome to my world. The difference between what is the right thing thing to do i.e. legally required as opposed to day to day reality are profoundly different. Based on my experience most polling place are not accessible. Even when they are the accessible booth is no different aside from the fact it has a meaningless blue wheelchair symbol tagged on the side. Like you this depresses me.

Matthew said...

I have a friend who is blind, and right now she lives in Florida with her husband, but during the 2004 election, she lived with her family in rural Tennessee. She was the only person who planned to vote for Kerry in her family. Nobody took her to the polling station. The government should be making sure that people who need to get to the polls can, regardless of their disability, because there are those who would prevent people with inconvenient views from exercising their right.

william Peace said...

Matthew, I have no idea how many people with a disability do not get the chance to vote because of practical barriers but I would venture to guess the number is significant. Regardless of government desire, this is just not acceptable. One of the great parts about living in a Democracy is the ability to vote either for against those we want to represent us. The key, the heart of the matter, is representation and having a voice in the process. Sure the process is flawed as are the people we vote for but we all are supposed to have the right to vote.

Terri said...

And we don't need a governor who goes along with the common rhetoric about access or the common belief that it's fine to exclude some people if it saves a few bucks...

He misses important inflection in issues for whatever reason. The legislature passed this well. The bill was broadly supported. He isn't saving enough or taking us off in some important direction that would make this veto look principled and leaderly... it just seems petty and like he doesn't get it.

And he should get it.

william Peace said...

Terri, Like you, I cannot in good faith put a price tag on access and inclusion. Paterson is a bitter disappointment at multiple levels. Some of his faults were within his control to correct and others were not. Saving a few dollars even in a time of economic crisis in this case makes no sense.

Terri said...

Yes saving the few bucks is meaningless. Especially if you compare it to the cost of inaccessibility: preventing people with disabilities from being employed and preventing them from full participation in the marketplace of buying/selling probably costs NY more.