Voters with disabilities speaking out
And candidates are listening; Bush, Gore tout plans
For more information on people with disabilities, check out the National Organization on Disability on the Web at http://www.nod.org
By James W. Brosnan
The Commercial Appeal
WASHINGTON - Ten years after passage of the Americans with Disabilites Act, disability rights groups are trying to make their voices heard in this year's presidential election with a large turnout Nov. 7.
And Vice President Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush are arguing over who will do more, trying to appeal to disabled voters with promises of new government aid for job training, adaptive technology and health care.
That debate is sweet music to Jim Dickson.
"People might finally be getting the message that we are a significant voting bloc," said Dickson, organizer of a "Vote! 2000" campaign by the National Organization on Disability and 32 other groups to boost voter turnout among the disabled.
Officially the Census bureau classifies 54 million Americans, one in five, as having a disability.
There are 2.5 million wheelchair users, 1.1 million people who are legally blind and 11 million people whose speech or hearing difficulties lead them to use sign language as their primary means of communication. Also classified with disabilities are those who have epilepsy, diabetes, traumatic brain injuries, mental retardation, AIDS, cancer, heart disease, and the mentally ill.
About 11 million of the 34 million disabled Americans of voting age cast a ballot in 1996, according to post-election surveys.
"If people with disabilities voted at the same rate as the rest of the population, we could add 5 million votes next Nov. 7," Dickson said. The campaign's goal is more modest, about 700,000 new disabled voters.
Dickson, 54, who is legally blind, headed the successful campaign to have a statue of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a wheelchair added to his memorial.
The first task is to make the government and private agencies that serve the disabled obey the 1996 Voter-Motor Law, which is known most for requiring states to offer voter registration when people obtain a driver's license. But another provision requires social service agencies to offer their clients assistance in registering to vote.
"Some don't know they're supposed to do it and there's been nobody pushing them to do it," said Dickson.
With the League of Voters, the Vote! 2000 campaign is distributing manuals to disability agencies on how to help register the disabled.
"People with disabilities are no different than the average citizen," said Deborah Cunningham, executive director of the Memphis Center for Independent Living. "Sometimes there is a lot of apathy about voting. I think we're so under-represented in most phases of our culture that we have to take it more seriously."
Once a disabled person is registered, there can be obstacles to voting. The blind especially complain that they do not get to vote in secret.
In Tennessee, like most states, a blind person must either bring a companion or go into the voting booth with Democratic and Republican poll watchers. Rhode Island this year became the first state to mandate that all polls be equipped with audio cassettes with taped instructions or Braille manuals directing the blind to the machine levers.
But the most frequent complaint from the disabled is that polling places are not handicapped-accessible.
"Many of the access problems would be very easily fixed if the election officials would just take the time to do it," said Dickson.
He's talking about things like ensuring there is a close handicapped parking space, wide doors, a ground floor location and an accessible, well-marked doorway.
Arkansas drew so many complaints about its polling places that it was sued. A 1998 settlement required the state to survey the counties about inaccessible polling places.
One problem is that many polling places - including about one-third of those in Memphis - are in churches, which do not have to follow the same accessibility requirements as public buildings and businesses. Even if there are handicapped entrances, they are sometimes not marked well for voters, said Jan Baker, senior staff counsel at the Disability Rights Center in Little Rock.
Tennessee law requires local election commissions to survey polling places in advance of elections and publish a legal notice if any are inaccessible to the handicapped.
"We haven't had to do that," said Shelby County Election Commission chairman O. C. Pleasant.
But he said the commission has changed some polling places in response to complaints and installed temporary ramps at other locations. He also said the staff is instructed to make sure that early voting sites are handicapped-accessible.
Cunningham said she believes the polling places have improved, "but occasionally we still get calls from folks."
Even though the disabled have more obstacles that might discourage them from voting, the Gore and Bush campaigns see the group as an important one to go after.
"They're working real hard to figure out how to get to people with disabilities," said Steven Eidelman, executive director of The ARC, a national organization based in Washington that serves the mentally retarded and their families.
Both candidates can claim history is on their side.
Ten years ago on July 26 Bush's father defied pressure from business interests to sign the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act, whose guarantees of access to public places and private businesses resulted in the building of ramps and wide doorways across America.
Passage of the ADA gave the disabled community "more confidence to be officially included as full citizens," said Justin Dart, a childhood polio victim, founder of Japan Tupperware, Inc., and head of the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities under Bush.
Now Dart is backing Gore.
Dart said President Clinton and Gore "appointed a virtual hall of fame of our movement leaders to key positions" and had their staffs meet frequently with disability community leaders.
It's those accomplishments that Gore can tout to make his case.
"They have supported a federal government that views as its responsibility to protect and empower its citizens, against considerable pressure from the far right, in my view," said Dart.
Gore has promised to double the federal government's hiring of people with disabilities, to challenge businesses to hire more disabled and to propose a $1,000 tax credit for the extra work-related expenses and assisted technology used by the disabled.
Gore also is pledging to expand home health care services under Medicaid and Medicare, answer a complaint from the disabled that they are often forced into nursing homes and other institutions because they can't get help at home.
"Hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities are virtually imprisoned in nursing homes and institutions because there is an acute lack of public services which would allow them to live at home and in the community, to live with freedom and choice as other citizens live," said Dart.
Tennessee is one of the worst states for community-based services because of the strong nursing home lobby in the state, Cunningham said.
Disabled voters are not monolithic, but have leaned Democratic, perhaps because they are bigger consumers of government-financed health care and other services. A Harris Poll for the National Organization on Disability in April said Gore held a 17-point advantage among voters with disabilities.
But Bush can take some heart in the fact that in 1988 his father trailed Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis by 21 percentage points in a Harris Poll, but closed the gap to 10 points by election day.
Bush is trying to close the 2000 gap with a $1.1 billion "New Freedom Initiative" that targets funding for helping the disabled work from home or at an office, get around town easier and buy a home.
One of Bush's advisers is Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), considered a stalwart in the disabled community because of his successful rewrite, with Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Frist said the Bush plan emphasizes getting the disabled access to technology to "increase their opportunity to function in communities" and "integrating disabled Americans into the workforce." Bush aides add that he will not cut existing services to the disabled and will vigorously enforce the ADA.
"The governor's approach is really borne from his view of government. It's an approach of empowering and independence," said campaign spokesman Tucker Eskew.
To show their concern for the disabled, Republicans have scheduled a mountain climber who is blind to lead the Pledge of Allegiance on opening night of the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia.
Erik Weihenmayer, 32, who has glaucoma, has climbed Mt. McKinley, Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua, the highest points in North America, Africa and South America, respectively, and next year plans to attempt Mt. Everest.
As governor, Bush signed several bills passed by the legislature to strengthen protections for the disabled and funding for community-based services increased 72 percent under his administration.
But critics complain about Bush's refusal to intervene in a case involving the right of the mentally ill to receive community-based services. Texas Atty. Gen. John Cornyn filed a U.S. Supreme Court brief joining seven other states, including Tennessee, in asserting that the state had a right to decide whether a disabled person should be sent to an institution for the services.
"It shocked the entire disability community in Texas, said Belinda Carlton, executive director of the Coalition of Texas with Disabilities. "It was hard to swallow, given that his father signed the ADA."
Fifteen demonstrators, most in wheelchairs, were arrested on Feb. 2, 1999, as they protested Bush's non-action on the sidewalk outside the governor's mansion in Austin. They still await trial on misdemeanor charges of obstructing a passageway (the governor's driveway).
The Supreme Court ruled against Texas and the other states and Bush
quickly signed an executive order asking state agencies to come up with
a plan to comply. As president, Bush says he would issue a similar order
directing federal agencies to help the states.
To reach reporter James W. Brosnan, call (202) 408-2701 or send E-mail