Liberty and Access for All

By Betsy Beaumon, posted on

To make voting truly inclusive, voting must be available and accessible to all.

The 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote across the United States is a time to celebrate!  It’s also a time to reflect on the lessons of that monumental movement and recommit to its mission, while acknowledging the injustices within the movement itself. The hopeful progress this anniversary represents, the rights of all in a free society, and particularly the right to vote in a democracy, must be honored by continuing the struggle and fighting to uphold all voting rights and access. 

Four women - one Asian, one Black, one wearing a headscarf, and one in a wheelchair - are cheering and saying "let's all vote"

Expanding Rights through Suffrage, VRA, and ADA

While it took 70 years of struggle to gain suffrage for white women in 1920, it took another 45 years, and countless lives lost, before the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 banned discriminatory voter suppression practices commonly used against people of color. It was another 25 years, all the way to 1990, before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) required equal opportunity access to voting for millions more Americans with disabilities. Thirty years later, we see these same rights threatened and still other individuals who remain disenfranchised. In 2020, even with all of these laws in place and 231 years after enacting our Constitution in one of the world’s most celebrated democracies, access to voting is on shaky ground and central to our civic debate.  

“So, lifting as we climb, onward and upward we go, struggling and striving, and hoping that the buds and blossoms of our desires will burst forth into glorious fruition ere long.”   –Mary Church Terrell, 1898 

Across the US we are deciding many local, state, and national offices in the middle of a pandemic, not so different than 100 years ago.  One of the most central topics is vote by mail – so that millions of Americans need not decide between their health and exercising their right to vote. Among our most vulnerable citizens are people with disabilities, and many of those same individuals can and do benefit from voting by mail for a range of accessibility reasons, from the inability to get to a polling place to inaccessible polling places or equipment (in direct violation of the ADA). Even though it is far from being a new approach, first benefitting Union soldiers in the Civil War, voting by mail en masse also brings challenges that we must address to insure full access to voting for all of our nations’ citizens. 

Ensuring that Voting is Accessible for People with Disabilities

Aside from the broader issues of availability and acceptance of mail-in ballots and the readiness of the postal service to handle the process, how are we doing on the accessibility of voting by mail? Big issues that impact people with disabilities in voting from home are accessibility and privacy. In a recent nationwide study of blind and low vision voters – the Flatten Inaccessibility survey — by the American Federation of the Blind, only 27.8% of respondents indicated that they vote by mail. A majority of people who are blind or low vision vote in person and most of them count on accessible voting equipment onsite. If voting remotely is inaccessible this year, these voters must expose themselves to COVID-19 by voting in person and/or give up their right to a secret ballot by being forced to ask for help to complete an inaccessible paper ballot. Availing voters of secure, accessible, remote digital options must be a priority. 

These issues join an array of ongoing challenges in the voting process for people with disabilities. The deaf community, perennially challenged by a lack of candidates and voting information in American Sign Language (ASL), faces additional communications hurdles this year due to mask-wearing and the need to physically distance. Will polls be ready to adopt new approaches and additional training for workers?  Lines at polling places are particularly difficult for many people with physical disabilities, so whenever states or counties limit in-person voting it creates a barrier to participation. The rights of people with intellectual disabilities are often ignored or just unknown to poll workers, even though allowing assistance for voters with disabilities was a part of the VRA. People in institutions may not even get that far, as they are often denied a trip to the polls and do not always have support to fight for accommodations. Various gatekeepers may not acknowledge their right to receive mail, including ballots, and there is further discrimination against their right or ability to make up their own minds about issues and candidates.   

  • How do people with disabilities get to know their rights?   
  • How do people with disabilities report violations of those rights and improve future access? 
  • How do allies and advocates help make sure the process is truly inclusive for all?   

Expanding Access to Voting is Everyone’s Responsibility

As a technologist, I see an opportunity to help us better understand the experiences of people with disabilities in voting, help inform them and those they come in contact with about their rights, create public awareness of these violations and thus shape policies and enforcement, and reduce barriers in the future. We need to arm these citizens with the technology to report their experiences and create change, just as women’s suffrage organizations armed their members and supporters with coordinated information, approaches, and signage. 

So, please join me in celebrating the anniversary of the 19th Amendment…and the VRA and the ADA…by registering, voting, and helping to enfranchise millions of other Americans to do the same! 

“Women have suffered agony of soul which you can never comprehend, that you and your daughters might inherit political freedom. That vote has been costly. Prize it!”  –Carrie Chapman Catt, 1920