Election Day

Voting with Down syndrome

I woke up this morning, put on my Stronger Together T-shirt, and headed down the street to vote in my first election. I was excited and nervous.

I thought about the rally I attended last night with classmates from George Mason University, where Tim Kaine talked about the women who have sacrificed so much for equality, including the hundreds who protested for the right to vote in 1917, some of whom were imprisoned just miles from my school.

I thought about all the doors I’d knocked on last weekend, and all the recent Saturdays I’d spent with my mother outside Marshalls with a clipboard and registration forms, hoping everyone we talked to would find time to make it to the polls today.

I thought about all the countries I’ve lived in, while my mom and dad worked for the State Department, where voting isn’t always transparent or easy. And about how lucky we are to have all the freedoms we do.

I thought about the letters I’d sent Hillary Clinton, and the prized signed portrait of her I keep on my desk, next to my copy of “Hard Choices.” I thought about her work with the Children’s Defense Fund, her efforts to make health care accessible, and her poise as secretary of state. I thought about “Fight Song,” which my mom and I blast in the car most mornings on the way to school, and about what a true fighter Hillary really is. I thought about everything she represents: fairness, intelligence, persistence, and courage.

I thought, also, about how mean Donald Trump has been to so many kinds of people: women, immigrants, Muslims, and people with disabilities, like me.

As my mother and I waited in line at Thoreau Middle School, we chatted again about the proposed amendments, and took note of a sample ballot on the wall, which instructed us to fill in the bubbles completely. Then the man in front of us turned around. “Oh, I don’t think she’s old enough to vote,” he said, addressing my mom.

He was wrong. I’m 21, turning 22 on Saturday. I’m a proud Hillary Clinton volunteer, and a freshman in the Mason LIFE Program, which caters to young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. I have Down syndrome, and I’m pretty small, yes, but that doesn’t mean I’m a child. And it certainly doesn’t mean I can’t vote.

We told our fellow voter this, and he apologized.

But he wasn’t the only one to underestimate me.

After telling a poll worker my address and signing in, I got a purple ticket to exchange for a ballot. When I handed it over, I didn’t get anything in return. Only after some insisting from my mom, and the woman who was giving her her ballot, did the volunteer realize I was voting in my own right.

I went to a booth and carefully filled out both sides of my ballot. I shaded in the bubble by Hillary Clinton’s name with a deep sense of pride.

After I finished, I headed toward a scanning machine and was about to insert my ballot when someone stopped me. “Your mother has a nice little helper today, doesn’t she?” a volunteer said, expecting me to wait for my mom. There were lots of kids around, it was probably an innocent mistake. Still, it hurt my feelings.

But, luckily, that’s all it did. None of this stopped me from voting, and for that I’m grateful. I know I’m certainly not the only one to have faced discrimination at the polls. The history of disenfranchisement in this country is long and ongoing, particularly when it comes to African-Americans. I know that Republicans have been actively trying to suppress turnout, and that there are many people — with disabilities and without — who will have a tougher time than I did making it to the polls today. And that there are many, who for one reason or another, won’t make it at all. That’s a shame, and something we as a nation need to work on fixing. Everyone deserves a voice.

I was discouraged that people questioned my fundamental right to vote. That’s why I decided to write this essay, with help from my mother and sister.

But I also feel very fortunate: to live in a nation where there are laws designed to protect people like me, where schools have special programs, and where the woman who will likely be our next president realizes that the way we treat the roughly 1 in 5 Americans with disabilities is a “reflection on us as a country,” and is willing to fight for our rights.

Sometimes I need a little extra help, sure. Don’t we all? We’re stronger together, that’s the point.