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Voters With Disabilities Face An Inaccessible System06:05
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Sabrina Epstein discusses the challenges of voting with a disability and what the federal government can do to improve accessibility. (Courtesy)
Sabrina Epstein discusses the challenges of voting with a disability and what the federal government can do to improve accessibility. (Courtesy)

Long lines to vote are cropping up around the U.S.

But for some 38 million Americans with disabilities who are eligible to vote in this election, casting a ballot presents its own challenges. A 2017 study from Rutgers University shows that one in three voters with disabilities will face difficulties in voting at a polling place.

According to a recent Rutgers report, there are 67.7 million eligible voters in the U.S. who either have a disability or have a household member with a disability. That number represents more than one-fourth of the total electorate.

Some voters, like Sabrina Epstein, a student at Johns Hopkins University who advocates for the rights of people with disabilities, are physically unable to stand in long lines to vote.

“While it's really exciting to see these images of long lines to vote because so many people are early voting, to people with physical disabilities like myself, that is an image of inaccessibility,” she says.

Many polling places are inaccessible, Epstein says, even though they’re required by law to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

Voters with disabilities are an important voting bloc, says Vilissa Thompson, a disability rights consultant, social worker and writer.

“If we cannot vote in a way that considers our needs, that may discourage us from voting, “ she says.

Absentee voting alone won’t resolve the problems voters with disabilities face. In North Carolina, it’s an entirely paper-based system, making it inaccessible to blind voters, who must ask a sighted person for help casting their ballot.

Plus, COVID-19 has made it more difficult for blind people to vote in person at their polling place because it’s difficult to stay socially distant from what you can’t see, says Holly Stiles, an attorney with Disability Rights North Carolina.

But for the first time this year, Stiles explains, blind voters in North Carolina will use an online voting system from Democracy Live, thanks to work by Stiles’ organization and other advocacy groups. In the past, this electronic system has allowed overseas and military voters to register their ballots online, and now it’s available to voters with visual impairments.

Some voters require support people to help them cast their ballots.

“I think support people are really tricky … because you want your vote to be your vote,” says Liz Weintraub, a senior advocacy specialist at the Association of University Centers on Disabilities, who is living with a disability. “The person with a disability needs to say, 'This is my life. This is how I want to vote.' [The support person is] just there to ... assist me.”

And privacy and independence are crucial for voters with disabilities.

“I think, first of all, the Democratic process needs to believe that we can vote and we can have an opinion. I think that they need to know that we ... as people with disabilities — these issues matter to us,” Weintraub says. “Healthcare matters to us. Education matters to us. Jobs matter to us. And we know what we want.”

Voters face barriers to receiving support in the first place. Laws prohibit staff members at North Carolina’s assisted living facilities and nursing homes from helping resident voters request and cast their ballots, Stiles of Disability Rights North Carolina says.

In many counties, the boards of election have not assembled a team of people to assist with voting, she adds, meaning that voters who live in facilities and need help filling out the request form are scrambling for assistance.

In Maryland, Epstein explains, blind and low-vision voters have two options. First, every polling place in the state is required to have at least one ballot marking device, which reads the ballot aloud to voters. Some poll workers are encouraging people without disabilities to use ballot marking devices in an effort to normalize them.

The other option allows people to use a screen reader to read them the ballot and fill it out privately and independently, online, at home. This came about due to a lawsuit the National Federation of the Blind, its Maryland affiliate and three blind Maryland voters filed in 2019. But still, not everyone has a printer, internet access or screen reader technology.

Accessible information remains a priority for voters with disabilities, Epstein says. It’s difficult for voters with disabilities to find information on the candidates because campaign websites aren’t always accessible to people using screen readers, or use high-contrast text and closed captioning on videos.

“It's hard to figure out what all the options are for voting, especially right now with COVID and so many of the rules and policies changing,” Epstein says. “On top of that, it's hard to find accessible information from candidates. ... It's really frustrating to feel left out of the political discussion, even just in … what some may say is a small way.”

NPR’s Life Kit compiled this guide for voters with disabilities who are heading to the polls this election season. 

Full Transcript Of This Conversation:


Elie Levine and Cristina Kim produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Levine adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on October 28, 2020.

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