Pandemic shines new light on voting rights issues for people with disabilities

MY identical triplet brother Dominic and I have done a lot of work together over the years, whether it’s playing in a band together for 16 years or literally working for the same company when we were younger.

As kids, we also worked together to launch a district-wide program in our hometown of Montgomery, N.Y., that aimed to educate people on, and bring awareness to, different disabilities. Dominic and I were, along with our brother Paul, born with Cerebral Palsy—a muscular disability that impacts our motor function and is caused by brain damage at birth.

When Paul passed away at age six, our mother began a short lived but impactful career in early intervention services for children with disabilities, and would take us to classrooms across our district where the two of us would speak to students about disabilities.

click to enlarge Sean, left, and Dominic both have Cerebral Palsy. - PHOTO BY GRANDMA
Photo by Grandma
Sean, left, and Dominic both have Cerebral Palsy.

Since her passing three years ago, we’ve both continued some work in this realm in our own ways—me as a board member of United Cerebral Palsy of Georgia and Dom as an independent volunteer advocate for disability justice.

Though we’ve gone separate paths as of late, with Dominic’s day job being Development Manager for Fair Fight, we found ourselves together again for a conversation about the issues facing the disabled community as it relates to voting.

Let’s start with this—when did you first start getting involved with advocacy and activism regarding voting within the disabled community?

The disability rights and justice advocacy started before I worked at Fair Fight. As you know, as kids you and I talked to other kids at our school district about disability awareness, and helped start the Celebration of Capabilities program in our district. So I've always been involved in some way with advocacy.

This is an issue I never thought much about when I was younger. It wasn't necessarily something that occurred to me. When did you become aware of the issues facing the community?

I always just assumed that, just as it is in our society that isn't inherently accessible for people with disabilities, there would be access issues for diabled people. Many buildings still aren't accessible, and there are so many different disabilities that affect people differently. One way of doing things isn't necessarily going to work for everyone. So I was always aware, but I think I really saw the issue of voter suppression as it relates to people with disabilities in 2018 when Stacey Abrams ran for Governor against Brian Kemp.

I remember reading a story about how Kemp, who was Secretary of State at the time and overseeing the election that he was a part of, was involved in a plan to close seven of nine polling locations in Randolph County, Ga., because they said they weren’t ADA compliant and they couldn’t make them compliant.

There was a lot of backlash because instead of saying, “We’re going to move these polling locations and find new ones that are compliant,” they said, “We’re just going to close them.”

That was the first time that I, myself, saw blatant suppression.

The disturbing part about that was that this was, in itself, ableist. It was basically weaponizing the ADA to disenfranchise Black voters. Disenfranchising Black voters on the backs of disabled voters. And they seemed to have done it without any input from the disabled community.

So there was no consulting with anyone in the community or any advocates?

I can’t say that for sure, but tell me that any disabled person would say it’s completely acceptable to close seven of nine polling locations in a single county, therefore making people with disabilities have to travel miles and miles to get to the closest polling location.

Ultimately you’re dissuading a lot of people from actually voting.

Exactly, so it negatively impacted disabled people from voting nearby. It actually hurt disabled people more than helped them. Overall, though, it hurt Black voters the most and used disabled voters as pawns. Thankfully, those locations didn’t wind up closing after all.

I think that’s something some people don’t seem to understand about ADA compliance as well, if we can broaden it for a second. It’s not just about putting in a handrail or a ramp, or providing visual or hearing aids or assistance. It’s about giving people the same level playing field for access to any human right.

Absolutely. And the other problem is that there are laws on the books that are supposed to ensure that people with disabilities can vote in a number of ways, and that they can vote privately and independently. The problem is, many places don’t follow those laws and some don’t even know them.

What are some of those laws?

Well, the Voting Rights Act has some language for people with disabilities. There’s the Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act, which is from 1984. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 has language to help people with disabilities be able to vote, but it doesn’t go far enough at all.

All of this isn’t just about locations. It’s also about people’s ability to go into a polling place and to vote if they need assistance. Particularly during this pandemic, mail-in voting is so important for many people with disabilities because it’s not necessarily safe for them. But it’s actually harder for other people to fill out mail-in ballots. Maybe they can’t fill one out properly. So the fact is, in-person voting also has to be accessible.

We don’t have an electoral system that is set up to be equal and fair and accommodating to people with disabilities, and the pandemic has highlighted that. But the people running the show don’t often know what the laws are, and sometimes the laws aren’t enforced.

The other thing is, many of these states don’t have the resources to put some of these laws in place. So they often just go ignored, which is how many disabled people feel.

I think a lot of people treat these laws in such a way that they just look for a workaround rather than taking it seriously. We’ve both seen that. What do you think is the solution in terms of voting, if there is one?

I don’t think there’s one solution, and unfortunately it’s going to take a lot of effort to change a system which is not set up to be accessible for all. That’s just the truth. Our system is not set up that way.

There are a lot of things we can do now, like making sure that states are following the laws. But it’s also going to take disabled people standing up and being part of it. We have to run for office, and we have to be able to be a part of shaping legislation so we can hold these states accountable.

We also have to come armed with information, because people aren’t educated enough about this stuff.

Which goes back to what you and I did as kids.

Yes, and it’s exhausting. We shouldn’t have to educate people. It’s like Black people having to continually educate people on what white privilege is. You shouldn’t have to. It’s exhausting for disabled people to continue having to say, “We exist.”

Until not that long ago we were all institutionalized.

Exactly.

The systems in place are not set up to be accessible to disabled people, just as they’re not set up to be accessible to Black people. So it’s exhausting to have to keep educating people.

It’s also exhausting to have to try to teach people about ableist language, and that’s a huge thing that’s been so disturbing to me during this election cycle. You see on Twitter so many likely well-meaning progressives and Democrats sharing that video of Trump having difficulty walking down a ramp or drinking from a glass of water.

There are so many things, so many things, that we could be criticizing Trump on. Why are we perpetuating this? It’s dangerous.

It’s perpetuating this idea that if I have difficulty walking down a ramp, I’m not fit to be in elected office. Which is just false.

Right. It’s dangerous to be perpetuating those ideas, right now but also just in general.

One thing that I want to make sure that I mention is that there is blatant voter suppression happening, which at Fair Fight we’re working to mitigate. But there’s also systematic disenfranchisement.

One thing that is blatant suppression, but nobody ever talks about, is guardianship and voter competency laws. There are laws that allow judges to basically strip voting rights from people with cognitive disabilities because they may be deemed “incompetent.” To the point where some of the language used is “idiots” or “insane persons.”

It ensures that someone, in the law’s eyes, isn’t able to cast their vote because one person decides they’re not able to make a decision of [sound] mind. The idea is that if that person can’t make a vote of their “right mind,” they may get a vote anyway. There is a negligible amount of any alleged voter fraud, let alone any actual convictions.

cs

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