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Voters with disabilities often face obstacles before they even get to the polls

A voting booth is seen. (Jon Cherry/Getty Images)
A voting booth is seen. (Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

Heading into the 2024 elections, disability advocates say there is still much work to be done to make voting accessible for millions of Americans with disabilities

“Not only due to long-COVID issues, but also to an aging population, the baby boomers are getting older and they need to be able to access the vote as well,” says Mia Ives-Rublee, director of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress.

Ives-Rublee has helped develop a new toolkit with her colleagues to track challenges disabled voters face as a way to help communities identify what solutions to advocate for going forward.

Full interview transcript

Deepa Fernandes: “A new toolkit aims to track the challenges disabled people have when it comes to voting. The Center for American Progress developed this as a way to help communities identify what solutions to advocate for. Mia Ives-Rublee is the director of the 

Disability Justice Initiative, and she joins us now. Mia, welcome to Here & Now.”


Mia Ives-Rublee: “Thank you so much for having me here.”


Fernandes: “Mia, give us the quick overview. How are conditions broadly for disabled voters right now in terms of access to democracy?”


Ives-Rublee: “Yeah. I mean, they face challenges from the very beginning of being able to register to vote. That can be difficult because a lot of the places that you would normally register to vote — which would be at the [Registry of Motor Vehicles] or at government agencies — they actually don’t interact with those individuals as often as you would think, and a lot of individuals with disabilities don’t actually get a driver’s license. So a lot of them may not actually have any interaction that would allow them to actually register to vote. 


“When we start talking about in-person voting, we actually found that, you know, [the Government Accountability Office] actually did a study looking at the accessibility concerns at polling locations and actually found that 60% of polling locations reviewed had some type of impediment that could impact their ability to vote independently. 


“We go from there to even looking at things like mail-in ballots, where individuals might not be able to access their mailing location, or they may not be able to read some of the ballots because they are inaccessible for folks who are blind or low vision.”


Fernandes: “It sounds like many challenges, and that’s where this new toolkit comes in. How does it work?”


Ives-Rublee: “Yeah, so we created this toolkit by interviewing several civic organizations and individuals who work in elections to talk to them about the concerns and issues that disabled people faced. And we created this toolkit … the tool is separated into four parts. 


“One is the voting registration process. The second is voting information. The third is voting in person. What does it look like physically? And then, lastly, is voting by mail. And so individuals are able to fill that out and provide feedback. And then they send it to us, and then we provide a point system in order to better evaluate specific states on how accessible their polling locations are going to be.”


Fernandes: “Got it. And then hopefully, they would take some of the tips from what people have said about why it’s not accessible to, to improve or make it better, I imagine.”


Ives-Rublee: “Yes. That’s our hope. We’re hoping that not only election officials look at it, but also civic organizations who can actually rally around the different issues and fight back and gain more access for disabled people across the spectrum. And as you said at the beginning of this, some of the biggest challenges for disabled voters happens well before election day.”


Fernandes: “You connected us with one voter, Camarie Zubizarreta, who lives in Washington, D.C., and she’s hard of hearing and she says she wishes more voting information was available in American Sign Language.”


(Soundbite of Camarie Zubizaretta: “There is usually a very minuscule amount of candidate information that’s available in ASL. Like a lot of deaf and hard of hearing people, ASL is my preference for that type of information.”)


Fernandes: “So Mia, what else are you learning about [in terms of] challenges with accessible voting information and voter registration?”


Ives-Rublee: “One of the things that I started noticing while I was researching all of this was that a lot of the information wasn’t provided in ASL, and why that is important is that many individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing actually don’t have high literacy rates because ASL is actually a totally different language than spoken English. 


“So, you know, individuals are having difficulty getting and gathering… in translating that information into languages that they understand. We also saw that individuals were having difficulty because maybe the information was too complicated. You know, individuals with developmental disabilities or low reading comprehension had difficulty understanding certain information if it wasn’t provided in plain English. 


“So all of those concerns actually make it so much more difficult for them to be able to understand where their polling locations are, understand how to register to vote, and understand what issues that they are actually voting on. And so it’s been a hassle to try and push a lot of these organizations that provide this information, and even the federal government, to provide this information in as many languages and many forms as possible.”


Fernandes: “Wou make me think too, the community of people with developmental disabilities, intellectual disabilities, have long called for the use of simple English to make things very simple. I wonder — people with intellectual disabilities, what challenges do they have when it comes to voting?”


Ives-Rublee: “Oh my gosh. They face so many challenges. Actually, many of them don’t even have the right to vote in certain states. If individuals are in guardianships, which became popularly known through the Britney Spears events, individuals in specific states that are deemed not competent are individuals that are often told that they don’t have a right to vote. 


“The laws are different in every state, and so it depends on which state you live in, on whether you actually have an access to your right to vote. So that’s a huge barrier for some individuals. And then we get into the plain language, needing the information in plain language. As you were saying, it makes it much easier for individuals to be able to vote on their own so they don’t have to have somebody in the polling location helping them out. So it’s very important that we provide information because not only does it help individuals with developmental disabilities, but it also helps people who English is not the first language that they speak, or even individuals with low literacy rates.”


Fernandes: “I mean, I imagine it would help nearly everybody. And it makes me think of Steve Grammar, who you kindly connected us with. He’s from Roanoke, Virginia, and he has cerebral palsy, which impacts his mobility and speech. And because he cannot physically mark a ballot on his own, he has to tell someone his choice out loud. He says it feels like a violation of his privacy. Here he is speaking with the help of a translator.


(Soundbite of Steve Grammar: “I have to dictate who I vote for, so I feel like people can hear my choice.”)


Fernandes: “And Steve says it’s disheartening there’s no private voting area where he goes to the polls, and he hopes one day there can be an option to vote online. And here’s another thought he shared with us using the assistance of text-to-speech about online voting.


(Soundbite of Steve Grammar: “It would not only make voting more convenient but also ensures that everyone, regardless of their abilities, can exercise their right to vote.”)


Fernandes: “So Mia, the vast majority of voters can’t cast a ballot online. Someone has to vote either in person or absentee, though online voting is starting to become available in some states. But what other challenges are you hearing about from the disability community about obstacles people face when voting?” 


Ives-Rublee: “Yeah, one of the things that we noticed in particular was that polling locations don’t keep their technology up to date or the poll workers aren’t trained and how to utilize accessible technology that is available at their polling location. So sometimes the electronics are there, but the individual is unable to utilize it because it’s not usable for them at that time. 


“By law, individuals with disabilities have a right to access the ballot independently and be able to vote independently. And unfortunately, right now, we don’t have the current enforcement that is needed to ensure that individuals have this access.”


Fernandes: “Yeah. You know, just finally, Mia, elections — federal elections that is — and next year, many other local elections happening pretty much around the clock. How much work do our voting places have to do to truly be inclusive of people with disabilities?”


Ives-Rublee: “I think that the pandemic showed that we are able to make voting much more accessible. We saw a huge increase in the amount of disabled voters who actually voted from 2020 in comparison to 2016. And this was partially because of greater access to mail-in ballots and drop-off locations. So I think that we have the capabilities if it impacts a great amount of individuals. 


“Unfortunately, we haven’t prioritized that until this past pandemic. And so we have to continue to push for that prioritization of accessibility so that more and more individuals can vote. And I think that’s extremely important because we’re seeing an increase in disability not only due to long-COVID issues, but also to an aging population. The baby boomers are getting older and they need to be able to access the vote as well.”


Fernandes: “Mia Ives-Rublee is director of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Mia, thank you so much.” 


Ives-Rublee: “Oh my gosh, I’m so glad to be here.”


This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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