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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Democracy for All but the Crippled

I have the legal right to vote as does every other American. I do not vote in my town. Why? The polling place is not accessible. It never has been and I doubt it ever will be. Thus I vote a few towns away. This is no big deal for me. I own a car and am willing to drive a few extra miles. What's the harm? This is the harm: I am the only resident that cannot vote in my own town. This bothers me. It does not bother anyone else. I know this for a fact because people have told me this. The level of ignorance at voting time is stunning. In 30 years I have never seen an accessible voting booth--not once. Sure I see little blue wheelchair signs but they all point to booths that are 40 years old and are not modified in any way. Worse, I have been questioned by poll workers and voters as to whether "someone in my condition" has the right to vote. More than once, fellow voters have suggested I should not be allowed to vote as there must be some sort of "cognitive minimum requirement". I have had poll workers volunteer to pull the handle in the booth, a direct violation of the law. I have had poll workers offer to enter the booth with me. Another violation of the law. Suffice it to say, when I vote ignorance and architectural barriers are the norm. And this is in the wealthy suburbs. What I wonder happens in poor and rural areas where access surely is a greater challenge? The answer to this question appeared in a recent report published by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). It is obvious the barriers I encounter are the norm nationwide. 27% of polling places in the 20008 election were accessible. Let me put that in headline form:


This is a national disgrace. Did this report resonate with let's say the New York Times, Wall Street Journal or other major publications? No! Did the national television news media report about this? No! Did CNN use this story as a filler? No! Did news pundits on the radio mention it? No!

Are we living in 1954 or is the year 2009? Was the ADA not passed 19 years ago? No wonder I feel about as welcome voting as a black man did during the Jim Crow era. Imagine if you will we are not discussing wheelchair access but racial segregation.
Imagine if I were black and not disabled. Imagine a sign that stated "whites only" outside your local polling place. I bet a riot would ensue. Police would be called and the national and local media would be out in force. But we are not talking about racial segregation. We are talking about the purposeful segregation of some 54 million Americans with a disability of some sort and about one or two million people that use wheelchairs. These people, people like me, have the right to vote. More than this inalienable right I would hope we have the support of the vast majority of our fellow Americans. But this is not the case. Access and inclusion is not valued, well, it is valued as long as it does not cost anything. I know this because someone like Governor Paterson, a man with a disability, thinks access is important but only if it is not too costly. I wrote about this last September. The GAO report only emphasizes this fact. But don't trust me. Read the GAO report for yourself. You can find a really detailed 47 page report that every American should be ashamed of.

Voting, we are taught, is fundamental to our democratic system. Federal law requires polling places to be accessible to all voters with a disability. The federal government knew the lack of access was rampant and in 2002 Congress enacted the Help American Vote Act of 2002. This act required polling places to have at least one voting system accessible to people with disabilities. This law is great but will only take us as far as it is enforced and socially accepted. Based on my experience as a voter for the last 20 years there is no desire to enforce the law. What the law states and reality are diametrically opposed to one another. I only need to look to and thank Governor Paterson because he made it clear there is no social demand for access. Such access is too expensive. This makes me furious. I am ashamed of my fellow Americans. I am ashamed of my town. I am ashamed of public schools that teach one thing and do another. I feel very alone today and I know why. I do not share and have not ever shared the rights of those that are bipedal. Surely the most resistant to this sort of thinking cannot dispute the facts--only 27% of polling places are accessible. Millions of people's rights are being violated and the vast majority of Americans don't care.


erika said...

This is so utterly outrageous. It's outrageous that a man of your intelligence and eloquence has to "prove" his cognitive ability to vote to people who don't even measure up to him. You are so right, if it wasn't about disabled people but a racial group, we would watch mass protests on CNN, and rightly so. But the violation of the civil rights of disabled people ranks way behind President Obama's choice of a White House dog or Michelle Obama's sleeveless dresses on the media's priority list. I'm so sorry that you have to endure these attacks on your dignity. Such a shame.

FridaWrites said...

Tell these bigots that the minimum cognitive requirement should be a PhD from an Ivy League and ask if they have one, you do.

This situation is outrageous--disabled people really are disenfranchised.

My uncle is cognitively disabled and votes. He has his own opinions and his opinion counts.

william Peace said...

Frida, The lack of access at polling places is outrageous. In addition I think polling places are particularly hostile social environment. I have a negative experience every time I vote. Churches are similarly hostile--at least the Catholic churches near me. To this I can add health food shops. Now that I am at it I should come up with list of places that present architectural and social barriers.

Erika, What the mainstream news covers is a mystery or simply pointless. The national network news is a waste of 22 minutes. Your comment on Michelle Obama and what she wear is worse. What the hell do we care what she wears to work? Do we hear a report about the President's suit? No, but somehow it is acceptable to focus on what a woman wears and comment on it. This sexism is wrong.
No need to be sorry. I use such statements as teaching moments. Some people though are resistant to learning.

kimba said...

Do they not have postal votes in America?

william Peace said...

Kimba, Yes, they have what we call absentee ballots. For those that cannot physically get to the polls on election day this is an option. But the absentee ballot is designed for Americans that are abroad, at war, ill, or for some reason cannot get to a polling place. They are not designed as an excuse for the lack of physical access for people that use a wheelchair. Access at polling places is required by more than one federal law. These laws are ignored. If I voted by absentee ballot I would be allowing bigotry and ignorance to win the day.

ten said...

That's completely ridiculous! I do not understand, how hard is it to adapt a voting booth so that the controls are at sitting height rather than standing?

Oregon's polling stations are pathetically old as well, but we adopted vote-by-mail which is what most people use. Maybe it's time for your state to do the same? There's no excuse for non-accessible voting in this day and age...

Matthew Smith said...

I thought you might be interested in this case from the UK, of a child whose mother and doctors (but happily not his father) thinks he might be better off dead because he's visually impaired and paralysed. The dad has a video showing him playing with his toys and says he enjoys being read to. He's not brain damaged. His father is taking the hospital to court to stop them turning off his life support. (Here is a UK Press Association update; apparently he could breathe without the ventilator with a tracheostomy and go home, but even if he needed a vent, surely it wouldn't justify turning it off.)

FridaWrites said...

William, I read Erika's comment differently--she's saying the media does this, not her. The media indeed attacked Obama for what she wore for her individual White House portrait--the same has been done with quite a number of politicians and wives of politicians as a way of deflecting attention from their politics.

The comment about health food stores struck a chord--I'm not sure if it's the wealth, fitness-minded self-righteousness, belief in karma and health voodoo (unproven alternative med., not that which is). There's one place that seems better, but it's more like a tiny farmer's market.

On the electoral issue, I found out people I know think it doesn't affect enough people to matter--including family. I, however, believe that the right to vote is the most fundamental right of a democracy. Without our vote, well--I think a lot of people don't want the disabled or senior vote (more seniors are disabled).

william Peace said...

Doctor, Grossly unacceptable is the word I would use. I state this because the right to vote is so fundamental to everything American's believe in. Substitute another minority group for disabled and you have front page and international news. Instead, people just go about their day and think, well, nothing of the inherent injustice.
Frida, I was just building on Erika's comments. The mainstream media makes me nuts. Vacuous is the word that comes to mind.

Places I avoid include health food stores, athletic gyms/health clubs, Church, and hospitals. Social interaction in these settings is profoundly negative.

Becs said...

To see what I saw at my polling place last night, see the fuzzy pic at

william Peace said...

Becs, Yes, that fuzzy photo captures the problem in one image. The placard for access is worthless. I saw an accessible voting booth for the first time. It was folded and covered up on wheels in a corner. I asked to use it and was told it was broken. Another person said it worked but they did not know how to operate it. A third person told me I had no need for the machine in their estimation because it was only for "really disabled people". No wonder I feel isolated, as though I am in exile in my own country.

Matthew Smith said...

Postal votes are an open window for abuse - you could have someone looking over your shoulder telling you who to vote for, and on some conservative websites there was a woman who openly stated that she got absentee ballots for all of the members of her family, and the father marked all of them (for the Constitution Party, I think). In the UK, there have been cases of Asian community elders obtaining people's postal votes and voting them for Labour, which is the traditional party of most of the Asian community; the young people could not be trusted to vote Labour because of discontent over post-2001 policies.

They are definitely no substitute for accessible polling stations.