All About Multiple Sclerosis

More MS news articles for November 2003

Disabled voters exercise franchise through determination

Saturday, November 1, 2003
Jarrett McLaughlin
The Ithaca Journal

Brenda Kuhn has had multiple sclerosis since 1980 and spends much of her time in a wheelchair or a walker. She votes at the Alternative Community School on West Hill, down the street from where she lives. It can be a challenge.

"There's one step, an average step, to get into the gym area," she said. "With my walker, I can maneuver in; with my wheelchair, I can pop a wheelie, which is difficult."

Kuhn said that the Board of Elections has put a ramp at Kuhn's polling place that can be put out on election day.

"Usually, they have it out," she said. "But sometimes it's against the wall, and I have to call someone over to help me."

According to 2000 U.S. Census data, nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population has some sort of mental or physical disability. Larry Roberts, Program Director of the Finger Lakes Independence Center, said that he encourages people with disabilities to vote at polling places, rather than absentee, because it's an important symbolic act.

"Historically, boards (of elections) have said 'we'll send them an absentee ballot,'" said Roberts. "We're dissatisfied with that answer. If you want to participate in the mainstream of life, it's important to go to the polling place. It's a right of people with disabilities."

For five years, before elections, Roberts has trained Town and City of Ithaca poll workers how to better accommodate voters with disabilities. For people in wheelchairs, Roberts instructs poll workers not to lean on the chair or pat wheelchair-bound people on the shoulder. For deaf voters, he tells poll workers that it's fine to communicate with pen and paper. He also tells poll workers not to offer assistance to disabled voters until asked.

According to Tompkins County Board of Elections Commissioner Elizabeth Cree, the board has not received any complaints from disabled voters about accessibility issues since the training sessions began.

Still, the state voting system, with its over half a century old voting machines, is imperfect.

"Right now, voting machines are accessible to people with wheelchairs, because they can be cranked down," said Roberts. "But this is not the most efficient system -- it relies on knowledgeable poll workers."

Roberts said it's more appropriate for machines to be at wheelchair height in the first place. Cree said that inspectors, average 62 years old, are sometimes "leery" of cranking down the old machines.

The federal Help America Vote Act of 2002 may help. The Act provides a total of $3.9 billion in aid money to states for election reform. Part of the money will go towards making polling places more accessible to disabled voters by improving access to polling places and replacing antiquated voting machines.

According to Peter Kosinski, Deputy Director of the State Board of Elections, New York's share of the money could be $230 million, depending on how much the feds decide to distribute. By law, he needs to have the new voting machines, which might function like ATMs, ready by January, 2006.

But for some, absentee ballots are just fine.

"The absentee ballot is a godsend," said Ray Reynolds, who suffered a spinal cord injury 38 years ago and has no use of his legs and limited use of his arms and hands. He said that he began using the absentee ballot 15 years ago. "Handicapped people have limited energy, limited financial resources," said Reynolds, 69, who lives at the Lakeside Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. "I'd rather save for other activities when an absentee ballot is available."

Reynolds said he socializes by going downtown and hanging out in the Commons on good weather days, or goes to the Pyramid Mall to hang out. "I'd like to vote like everybody else," said Kuhn, "and not feel that it's another reason to stay in the house and not participate in the community, because the community has not made things accessible."

Copyright © 2003, The Ithaca Journal