On November 6, 2012, millions of Americans who want to vote in the national election will be unable to cast their ballots--not because they are ineligible, not because they have inadequate identification, but simply because they are in wheelchairs or have some form of physical disability.
How many of us are likely to be turned away at our designated polling places?
For me, that would not be a new experience. I vividly recall the 2000 election when I was supposed to go to a church to cast my ballot. There was a ramp leading up to the door of the church, but in order to get to the bottom of the ramp, I would have to climb up several steps, an obvious impossibility for anyone, like me, in a wheelchair.
Election officials offered to carry me into the church. I declined, both because it was unsafe and because it was undignified. (How would you like to be hand-carried into a voting booth?)
I returned home, got on the phone, and talked to one of the local election officials, explaining the issue. She said that they would get something built right away. A few hours later, I returned to the polling place to find a makeshift, triangular wooden ramp. It was wobbly, but adequate, and on my second try, I was able to cast my ballot in a critical election.
But I wonder: What will it be like this year for the American voters who happen to be in wheelchairs, using canes, or pushing walkers? There are millions of us, more every day, and we have done nothing to deserve disenfranchisement.
It's not a pretty picture. According to Federal Election Commission statistics cited by the Center for An Accessible Society, people in wheelchairs will have to be turned away at more than 20,000 polling places around the nation. Not surprisingly, for those of us who face these obstacles--including anyone using a cane or walker or who has impaired eyesight--these physical barriers are a disincentive to participate.* The National MS Society reports that more than one out of every ten people with disabilities don't even bother to register to vote.** Given what they are likely to face at the polling place, who can blame them? But if we're going to make our influence felt in our society, we need to take the necessary steps to cast our ballots and make them count.
In Philadelphia, my home city where I am to vote next month, my search for an accessible polling place has already begun in earnest. I know what to watch out for. At the Pennsylvania Department of State website, inaccessible polling places are marked with a "wheelchair accessible" symbol that has been modified to indicate "Not accessible." The wheelchair symbol is circled in red, and there is a big red line slashed through through the middle.*** Sorry, handicapped voters not welcome here!
But I will vote. And so will millions of other Americans with handicaps and disabilities. To cast our ballots, we may have to search hard for accessible sites, and perhaps we will even have to contact local election officials to make adjustments (as I had to do in 2000). But it's essential that we find a way.
With only a few weeks to go before the election, here's what you need to do make sure your vote counts:
Find out if your polling place is accessible. Visit ahead of time--or ask a friend or family member to visit for you--and check it out:
• Is there sufficient handicapped parking? What is the condition of the parking lot around the handicapped spots?
• Are the entrances to the polling place wide enough to accommodate your wheelchair?
• Are there ramps or elevators available?
• Is there sufficient lighting? (Polling places are open past dark on the east coast.)
Then prepare for voting day.
• Do you have a plan (and a back-up plan--neighbor, coworker, cab, etc.) for transportation to and from the polling place?
• Do you have a babysitter lined up so you don't have to drag unwilling kids to the polling place?
• What is the weather forecast? If you anticipate bad weather, you could plan in advance and vote by absentee ballot. (One out of three voters will vote early. If your circumstances make it impossible to vote in person, plan to vote absentee. REGISTER NOW!)
Other ideas and suggestions? Please don't hesitate to post them here. For all of us facing the challenges of this upcoming election day, we need to share our knowledge and experiences to make sure that we are part of this fundamental democratic process.
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