NEW YORK (AP) - Disabled voters - "the sleeping giant of American politics," as one blind activist calls them - are being roused to action this year.
Across the nation, they are registering to vote in record numbers, demanding that more polling places be accessible to wheelchairs, and benefiting as never before from Braille ballots and high-tech machines that enable the blind to vote without help.
In addition, said Jim Dickson, who heads a registration and turnout drive for the National Organization on Disability, candidates are paying more attention to the disabled.
"I remember pleading, begging, pushing candidates to say something about disabilities," said Dickson, who is blind. "In 2000, the candidates called the disability community, saying, `Send us your positions.' It's a huge difference."
The Census Bureau estimates the number of disabled Americans at 54 million, including 34 million of voting age. That includes not only those who are blind, deaf or use wheelchairs, but also those with chronic diseases or mental disabilities.
Disabled people vote at a lower rate than non-disabled people. In 1996, for example, an estimated 30 percent of voting-age disabled people cast ballots, compared with an overall turnout of 49 percent.
Hoping to increase the clout of its constituency, the National Organization on Disability launched a campaign called Vote 2000 a year ago. Dickson said 500,000 new disabled voters have been registered.
Disabled-rights groups also are pressing for improved access to polling places. Dickson estimates that one-third of the country's 120,000 polling places are not fully accessible.
In Philadelphia, activist Jessie Jane Lewis said less than 10 percent of the 1,681 polling places are fully accessible, though she said aggressive lobbying and voter registration drives seem to be having an effect.
"In any civil rights movement, voter registration is the key," she said. "People have to enfranchise themselves. It isn't through the goodness of their hearts that election officials are going to make the polling places accessible."
Most states try to accommodate disabled voters by allowing them to cast absentee ballots. But Dickson said these procedures sometimes require applications 30 days before Election Day, and do not substitute for a trip to the polls.
"The heart of the disability movement is that we should have the same choices as everybody else does," he said. "Voting by absentee ballot segregates us. It puts us out of sight, and out of sight is out of mind."
Rhode Island has been a pacesetter on two fronts in accommodating disabled voters. It has pledged full accessibility at all 433 of its polling places for Tuesday's election and it will be the first state to enable all blind voters to vote without assistance from another person.
Other states have offered Braille or tactile ballots in certain counties; Rhode Island will do it statewide, thanks partly to the efforts of its quadriplegic secretary of state, James Langevin.
"I would hope other states would look at what we're doing here, and work toward that same goal," said Langevin, who is expected to win a congressional seat on Tuesday and become the first U.S. representative who uses a wheelchair full-time.
"The House is scrambling to get things ready," said Langevin, 36, whose spine was severed in an accidental shooting while he was a 16- year-old police cadet.
Technology to assist disabled voters is evolving rapidly. In fact, Curtis Chong, director of technology for the National Federation of the Blind, hopes the Braille and tactile ballots being used in Rhode Island will soon be outmoded.
He praised new electronic technology - now being tried in a few Texas and California counties - that includes an audio component so that a blind voter can hear the ballot choices. Chong hopes such devices, at a cost of perhaps $500 each, will soon be available nationwide. Traditionally, blind voters have needed someone to accompany them to mark their ballot.
"It's a privacy issue," said Pat Maurer, community relations director
for the National Federation of the Blind. "Some people really don't want
others to know who they voted for. And sometimes people just don't want
to ask for help."