November 8th began like any usual day with my morning routine to get up and out of bed and into my wheelchair. I’ve been a high-level quadriplegic since August of 2009 and found myself very much involved and concerned about policymakers’ decisions and how they would affect my life moving forward. It didn’t take me long to make the connection between my disability and the services I receive in regards to my reliance on the government and how important it was that I make my rights and needs known by lawmakers. Being an advocate for disability rights at the Resource Center for Accessible Living (RCAL) in Kingston has opened my eyes even more to the vital role constituents play in molding the policies that will impact all of our lives now and into the future. Voting, regardless of one’s disability is a right that so many minorities before us have fought for. But as I go about advocating for voter registration and the imperative that all people actively participate in the democratic process, I find many individuals are either discouraged or simply too busy just getting by to have time to study the issues and the candidates running for office. Nonetheless, what was fought for and seen as a privilege during the civil rights movement has slowly turned into a complicated time-consuming process for some. I would stress that voting, if one wishes to see the world around them change for the better, not only be seen as a privilege but a constitutional obligation that was cherished by our founding fathers.
Going out to vote for the most recent election was not as simple for me as it may be for some. With the help of family and my caregiver I wheeled my way into my van, secured my chair, and prepared for the short ride to the local firehouse after what added up to be about two hours of morning prep time. On my arrival I was pleased to see handicapped parking next to the accessible entrance, one requirement under the 2002 Help America Vote Act that was established after controversy over the 2000 presidential election. HAVA requires polling sites to be fully accessible to individuals with disabilities so that they may engage in a fully independent and private vote. This also includes a mandate that the Board of Elections provide an accessible voting machine known as a ballot marking device or BMD which allows individuals to choose from a range of devices to mark their ballot through a computer screen. Features of the BMD include enlarging font and changing the contrast of the screen for individuals with visual impairments while providing audio instructions through headphones. The BMD also includes a range of utilities for individuals with mobility impairments including paddle switches, ATI (Audio Tactile Interface), and a sip and puff straw for individuals with no use of their limbs such as myself.
Due to some glitches in the computer, my first round with the sip and puff straw went by the wayside and caused me to wait for technicians from the Ulster County Board of Election. It would have been easy for me to ask my mother or sister to mark my ballot but I had come there to make a point that I have a lawful right to do it independently and privately, so I waited. Once the machine was restarted the process went off without a hitch. Sip and Puff switches are used on a range of assistive technology devices including power wheelchairs for those with limited neck movement. A straw is attached to the end of the device and registers when the user applies inward or outward air pressure, and depending on the device those two signals are programmed to carry out the associated action. For the BMD for example, a “puff” progresses through the list of candidates and the “sip” selects and deselects one’s choices
In late October I held a training event at RCAL to give individuals an opportunity to try the BMD before the coming election. Both Board of election commissioners were kind enough to attend and help with the outreach (voter outreach being another mandate under HAVA).
All in all the implementation and integration of accessible voting is critical in allowing members of the disabled community to voice their opinion. There are a range of important issues surrounding our lives and if we do not take it upon ourselves to participate in large enough numbers to essentially impact a candidate election, our voices and concerns can easily be swept under the carpet. We mustn’t allow impatience and difficulty at the polling sites to discourage us from going out and participating in democracy towards positive change.
For more information on the Ballot Marking Device go to: http://www.vote-ny.com
Practicing the BMD at RCAL, Oct. 27