6 ways you can help me — a paralyzed person — vote
My life changed forever during my junior year of college after a farm accident severed my spinal cord and left me paralyzed. I’m now 29 years old and, even though I live in New York City, I still encounter many accessibility challenges, whether it’s finding an apartment, a subway station with a reliable elevator or doors wide enough for my wheelchair.
 
As Americans, voting in the presidential election is a guaranteed constitutional right. Unfortunately, due to inaccessible polling locations, this right isn’t always fulfilled by the 57 million disabled Americans, including wheelchair users.
 
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As recently as 2012, data shows that 72 percent of polling places were not accessible, despite the Americans with Disabilities Act and Help American Vote Act requiring accessibility of local polling locations. In that same year, 57.2 percent of people with disabilities did not vote.
 
History may repeat itself this election if we don’t make a change. We need to correct accessibility obstacles at polling places now to avoid turning people away on November 8.
 
If just a few people in every town did a dry run through their polling places this week, we could identify accessibility challenges and give municipalities time to correct any issues. Here are six key factors to keep in mind during your visit.
  1. Evaluate the parking situation: There should be clearly labeled designated parking spots with access aisles —at least 96 inches wide—providing sufficient space for a wheelchair user to exit a vehicle. If there aren’t any access aisles next to the parking spots, your municipality can make sure wheelchair users have enough room by blocking off space with cones next to those designated parking spots. If there are no parking spots, there should be a designated accessible drop-off area planned for the day.

  1. Smooth, wide walkways and ramps: The parking lot and passenger drop-off areas should lead to an accessible route at least 36 inches wide and free of bumps and gaps. The accessible route should lead the wheelchair user from the parking lot through the hallways and end at the accessible voting machine. Ramps and curb ramps may be needed to navigate to the entrance. If there are no ramps or curb ramps at the polling place, your municipality can easily install a portable ramp.  

  2. Wide entrances and hallways: The accessible entrance should be wide enough to fit a wheelchair, at least 32 inches, and have hardware easy enough to twist or pull with one hand. There should be at least four feet between doorways to avoid boxing people in between two doors. If there is an inaccessible entrance, there should be a sign indicating where the accessible entrance is.

  3. Working elevators: If the voting area is not on the same floor as the entrance,  the building must have working elevators with wide doors and low enough buttons for the voter to reach.   

  4. Accessible voting machine: Finally, there must be at least one accessible voting machine clear of protruding obstructions, or an option for curbside voting. The accessible voting machine area should have enough turning space for a wheelchair user to be comfortable and be able to move his or her wheelchair around. If a person has limited or no hand mobility, or needs assistance in the voting booth, he or she can appoint a personal assistant or caregiver to go into the voting booth and help with casting his or her ballot, per the Voting Rights Act. While voting, if the wheelchair user has any questions, there should be volunteers/workers at the polling place that have been trained on the voting accessible machine and can be of proper assistance.

  5. Provide feedback:  After your voting experience—whether it was positive or negative—make sure to follow up with your local election officials to provide them with your feedback. Local municipalities encourage citizens to share their experience as it helps them improve the process for the community. It will also help ensure that there aren’t any similar voting barriers the next election period.

When you check your local polling place, note any accessibility challenges and share them with your local election board and town leadership so they can make the necessary adjustments before Election Day. If you can’t make it out to a polling place prior to Election Day, it’s important to still call your local election official and ask them to address these concerns.

With a few tweaks, more polling places can be made accessible for wheelchair users. If we expect change, it’s our turn to speak up now. We all have the right to vote: help us fulfill that this election. For more information on accessible voting, visit the Reeve Foundation’s Voters with Disabilities fact sheet.

By Jeff Laffond, Chairman of the Champions Committee for the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.