Accessibility in Polling Places

By Belinda Nam

When discussing polling place accessibility for eligible voters, we have to talk about disabilities. There are more than 56 million Americans who have some form of a disability, and about 35.4 million disabled Americans were eligible to vote in the 2016 election. This is a group of eligible voters that tends to have low voter turnout. The statistics and data show that this group is less likely to vote than able-bodied eligible voters, but why is this the case?

Politicians do not acknowledge this community enough. If we increase communication around disability politics, more people with disabilities will feel encouraged to vote in future elections. When we make these changes, we’re telling this community, “Your voice matters, and America wants to hear it.” Thankfully, disability and accessibility was brought up more frequently during this past election cycle than during any previous election cycle before it. This increased dialogue urges all Americans to prioritize disabilities within the public sphere and to reimagine the literal foundation of polling places and the layout of ballots to include people with disabilities into the political space.

Disability discussion revealed very different values between the two 2016 presidential candidates. Donald Trump failed to have a concrete plan for the disabilities community on his campaign website; yet, he still managed to ignite a conversation about disabilities. Although he denied the claims, a video circulated of Trump allegedly mocking Serge Kovaleski, a reporter with a congenital condition that affects the mobility of his arms. This incident had people wondering if Trump had the best interest for this community. The Bloomberg National Poll showed that more than 6 out of 10 people were highly displeased by Trump mocking Kovaleski. Using this as momentum, Hillary Clinton’s advertisements highlighted that segment and addressed disability politics. Clinton’s campaign focused on targeting the disabilities community by placing captions on online videos, proposing a plan for people with autism, and addressing the economic challenges the community faces. She touched on how she would work to fulfill the promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act, expand support for Americans with disabilities to live in integrated community settings, improve access to meaningful, gainful employment for people with disabilities, and provide tax relief to help the millions of families caring for aging relatives or family members with chronic illnesses or disabilities.

Those affected by disabilities become more invested in politics when politicians include them in the political narrative. The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is twice as high as their non-disabled peers, which is why those affected by disabilities were interested in Clinton’s focus on increasing employment opportunity and maintaining healthcare. So while there was more discussion and concern around disabilities, politicians can clearly do more to address disability politics.

Say that more people with disabilities are following the next election because they feel like they are being mentioned more. What barriers existed that prevented or made it difficult for people to vote in previous elections? An NPR article by Pam Fessler helps readers understand the accessibility issues with polling places and the challenges of the layout of the ballot. This 2016 election may have influenced more people with disabilities to stay interested, but research from previous elections showed that polling place accessibility made it difficult for people to actually vote with ease. During the 2008 presidential election, “almost a third of voters with disabilities reported having trouble casting their ballots.” Depending on the type of disability, these difficulties included being unable to read or see the ballot, not understanding how to vote or use the equipment to vote, waiting in long lines, finding or getting to the polling place, writing on the ballot, getting inside the polling place, communicating with election officials, or opening the voting machine.

When polling places are inaccessible, people with disabilities feel discouraged from voting and from engaging in the political sphere. They may feel ostracized and not included in the voting narrative, which is unfair because their quality of life is heavily influenced by politics. In order to represent this growing population, we have to provide equal opportunities to vote in general elections. We can correct the issues in the architecture and change the mentality that society supports and endorses able-bodies more than those who deviate from that “norm”.

If money is a factor in altering the layout of polling places, there are temporary ways to mediate inaccessible polling locations. While some people worry about big changes in architecture, “relatively minor changes in the built environment [could] provide accessibility to people with a wide range of physical characteristics and abilities,” according to Susan Wendell, a professor who focuses on disabilities rights. This means that we do not necessarily have to make drastic changes; it could simply mean moving trash bins out of the way at polling places, cutting branches and trimming bushes around doorways, or designating more room and spots in the parking lot with traffic cones to accommodate those with disabilities.

This begs the question; what’s preventing us from changing the architecture of polling places — which are usually schools, libraries, and churches — to make them more accessible year-round? There are benefits to making changes for accessibility, and it usually benefits the general public as well. For example, having larger bathroom stalls or wider doorways can certainly help people with wheelchairs, scooters, or crutches, but a bigger stall and a wider doorway can also help a parent with a stroller, a woman who is pregnant, or individuals who use support animals.

Statistics show that nearly one in five people in the United States has a disability; it’s critical that these people have a say in elections. The statistics also show that it’s less common for people with disabilities to vote than the able-bodied community, which reveals the importance of raising awareness and educating the public on how to expand accessibility in the political sphere for all eligible voters. The truth is that some able-bodied individuals choose to ignore disability politics because it does not seem to personally affect them; however, if able-bodied individuals faced the discrimination the disabled community faces, then they would demand an accessible and just society.

Disability issues cannot be forced into the private sphere because progress is hard to achieve that way. When it’s kept in the private sphere, the obstacles regarding accessibility will not be solved. If this happens, people with disabilities will feel discouraged to vote. All eligible voters should be encouraged and allowed to have an equal chance, especially because the disabilities community is vast and can heavily influence the outcome of an election.

Belinda Nam is the content intern at NewFounders (formerly RISE). NewFounders believes in unity through problem-solving, and is comprised of design, tech and innovative thinkers that believe in unity through problem solving. See more at www.newfounders.us.