by Mark Van Streefkerk
If disabled people voted at the same rate as non-disabled people, there would have been 2.3 million more votes in the November 2018 elections. Breaking down barriers to access and getting votes counted is not a partisan issue; it’s part of a healthy democracy, and it’s the law. A new video series “Votes for Access,” hosted by writer and disability advocate Imani Barbarin, takes a look at the hindrances disabled citizens face when it comes to voting, and how accessible voting should be a priority for everyone, especially in the new normal of COVID-19 life.
Votes for Access is a five-episode series that launched April 29 on Block by Block Creative’s website. Each episode is around five minutes long and includes interviews from disabled voters, as well as Barbarin’s key takeaways in her smart, approachable style. The Director of Communications and Outreach at Disability Rights Pennsylvania, Barbarin explained that “a lot of people are excited to see their stories told and have their experiences validated because a lot of disabled people share some of the same experiences.” She added that the series also “raise[s] awareness for non-disabled people about how pervasive these issues are and how they affect the community.”
The first episode, “Attitudes,” goes right to the underlying basis of discrimination against disabled voters. “Family members, caregivers, and even poll workers wrongly assume that people with intellectual or developmental disabilities can’t understand the issues or make an informed choice. People have been turned away from the polls because of this harmful misconception,” Barbarin says in this episode.
It’s a misconception that in some cases strips people with mental or developmental disabilities of their right to vote. Episode two demonstrates that information about candidates or legislation online is often unreadable with a screen reader or doesn’t offer audio captions. Barbarin references a Time article that found none of the 2020 presidential candidates’ websites were fully accessible to disabled voters. Although 61 million Americans have a disability, there isn’t much representation at the legislative level, which means getting the word out about policies that have lasting effects for disabled people is vital.
For states without a vote-by-mail option, getting to an in-person polling place, and having accessible accommodations at those sites, brings another set of obstacles. In episodes three and four, Barbarin and others talk about long wait times and accessible voting units not being plugged in (or poll workers not knowing how to operate them). Salene Jones, a Washington State resident interviewed in the series, has experience voting in Washington and Ohio, states with and without mail-in ballots, respectively. She said, “Voting by mail is super easy. I vote a lot more now that I can vote by mail, because I don’t have to go to polls. In Ohio, I think I ended up waiting in line for at least an hour and a half. I know that’s not the longest time people have waited in line to vote, but it was just ridiculous.”
Jones believes that mail-in ballots make it easier for everyone to vote, not just disabled people. Barbarin points out not everyone can vote by mail however. Some citizens need braille, large print or audio ballots, or assistance with voting. States such as Oregon and Maryland offer an alternative online ballot. Votes for Access also takes on issues of voter suppression and the fact that disabled people in institutions or prisons face additional barriers to voting.
Disabled voter advocates can teach us how to expand voting for everyone, something that’s even more important as the U.S. slowly reopens. There may be no going back to the way things were pre-COVID-19, but in the upcoming November elections, safe and accessible voting is essential. “We can make voting accessible,” Jones affirmed. “It’s something that we can do. There are all these things that we didn’t think we could do. We didn’t think we could do online courses, we didn’t think we could do tele-health, and now COVID has shown us that we can do it.”
Mark Van Streefkerk is a South-Seattle-based journalist living in the Beacon Hill neighborhood.
Featured image courtesy of Block by Block creative.