Pandemic aside, disabled Nebraskans face barriers when casting their vote
Although the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed 20 years ago, many polling locations across the state don't accommodate handicapped voters. This year, however, new accommodations have been made.
LINCOLN, Neb. (KLKN) – As citizens across Nebraska and the United States are voting in the 2020 presidential election, there is still a group of Americans who find themselves struggling when it comes to casting their vote. Those with disabilities.
Michael Warner, a 34-year-old man from Omaha is disabled. At the age of one, he was diagnosed with spastic cerebral palsy.
“I experience spasms and I also don’t have the ability to walk, so that’s basically how my disability manifests itself, but that’s basically the only hindrance that I have,” Warner says.
On his 18th birthday, Warner says the first thing he did was register to vote. “My mother took me down to the DMV and got me registered to vote.”
Warner votes because his life, quite literally, depends on it.
“I receive the assistance of social security, Medicaid and Medicare to be able to live my life as independently as possible. With that being a factor of my life, I thought it was prudent of me to engage in the civic responsibility that I have as a citizen to be able to have my voice heard on certain initiatives that may effect those with disabilities, or those within the African American community.”
But when it comes to actually getting to the polls and casting their ballot, Warner says there are many obstacles that those with disabilities face.
A majority of those challenges range from the physical accessibility of the polling locations. For example, if a location has gravel parking lots, someone who uses a wheelchair may not be able to push themselves on it. Something an able-bodied person wouldn’t think twice about.
Although the Americans with Disabilities Act passed 30 years ago, many buildings in cities across the United States still lack the tools necessary to accommodate handicapped community members. Warner says Nebraska is no exception, and these topics need to be addressed.
“Making sure that doors are wide enough for people to actually get in their polling place, or if they’re using an electric wheelchair, that the door isn’t too small for them to get through.”
Many buildings are also ADA compliant because they were grandfathered into the system, meaning upgrades and changes to accommodate disabled people weren’t required to be made. Some of the top problems are still ramps and powered doors.
“When there are no push button doors on buildings, for me anyway, it strips away the individuality and independence that I’ve fought so hard through my life, and others have fought so hard through their lives to achieve,” Warner says. “So you’re stripping away our independence when they don’t think about these things while working on these spaces.”
A study by Rutgers University shows that the number of voters who are disabled and participated in past presidential elections is slowly declining, mostly due to accessibility issues.
“Voter participation among people with disabilities within the last couple of presidential elections has declined from 57.3% in 2008 to 56.8% in 2012 and 55.9% in 2016,” says Edison McDonald, the executive director of Arc of Nebraska, a disability advocacy service.
While the physical access is still a prominent issue for the disabled, McDonald says so their perception as voters in our communities.
“When dealing with people with disabilities, a lot of people have misconceptions and many of them will think they can’t vote, or if they have a guardian, they can’t vote but the truth is, unless a judge has specially said an individual cannot vote, then they can vote,” McDonald says.
McDonald strives to make the rights of the disabled community known to able-bodied individuals all year round, including on Election Day.
“They also have the right to assistance, whether it’s a poll worker helping them out, or an individual who is a friend of theirs helping them out. They have that right.”
While he normally prefers to vote in-person, Warner says this year, due to the pandemic,
he voted by mail, dropping his ballot off in a secure ballot box in Omaha. Although he is unable to write due to his disability, one of his aides helped him fill out the ballot, as the law allows them to.
In 2018, the Arc of Nebraska and other disability services conducted a study of polling locations in the area. Their research shows that 51% of polling locations didn’t have powered doors, 22% of locations had doors that couldn’t be easily opened, 11% had issues with polling machines, and only 61% had proper signage.
Close to 9% of locations didn’t have ramps, and 20% of locations were unsure if ramps were usable.
McDonald says that this data prompted change within the Nebraska Legislature, and with the help of Senator Rick Kolowski and Richard Burr, a bill was passed to help with the consistency of accessibility requirements when it comes to polling locations. Of those improvements are newer, functional Easy Mark voting systems.
“Previously we had the Automark systems from the 1980s, they were giant and needed about two people to carry them in. But now, we’ve got these fantastic new tablets that are tiny can be moved around easily,” McDonald says.
During their 2018 research, McDonald says it was found that the many poll workers didn’t know how to use or even turn on the old polling machines, meaning they weren’t ready or accessible when handicapped voters came in to cast their vote.
He says the new machines are worth every penny, and can help each and every voter easily and privately participate in the election.
“We’re really excited about these because they have all sorts of features for an individual whether they’re blind, visually impaired or hard of hearing, or need a puff and sip, that’s all available,” McDonald says.
This year, disabled voters were made aware of more accommodations as the country and local communities continue to fight the coronavirus pandemic. For the first time, curbside voting is an option. If you are physically unable to enter the polling location, there will be a sign with a number to get assistance at your vehicle. If disabled voters find issues with polling locations, they can also call a hotline at 402-890-5291 to report the issues.
Although there have been upgrades made to many polling locations across the state, Warner says the work isn’t done yet.
“I have seen improvements in some places, in other places it still leaves a lot to be desired.”
McDonald says these changes are necessary, but not just for voting season. “Polling locations aren’t just for Election Day, they are community centers, schools, churches, they’re places where people gather in their communities, and making sure an individual is able to access that 365 days out of the year is tremendously important to making sure they have that opportunity of full community inclusion.”
Both men also encouraging community members to take action and activate your rights this year and for every election to come.
“If you don’t believe its important to vote, you’re making a gross miscalculation of what’s not only your civic duty as a person, but more importantly what is your right as a citizen,” Warner says.