When the Americans with Disabilities Act became the law of the land in the summer of 1990, I was probably experiencing early symptoms of multiple sclerosis and didn’t know it. I was physically active and enjoyed international travel and adventure, and sports such as hiking and cross country skiing. I lived and worked in Manhattan, traveled by subway, moved anonymously through crowded streets and retreated to my house in rural upstate NY on weekends. The only “accommodations” I concerned myself with then were the latest modern conveniences. Fast forward 11 or 12 years – I can’t remember exactly. The harsh diagnosis of MS ground to a halt almost everything I had loved to do, physically.
I have always been politically active, too, and physical changes can’t halt that. I have voted in every election from local School Board Members to President of the United States since I was 18 years old. In 2002 Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which established requirements for voting systems nationwide. HAVA gave everyone the right to participate in elections, including improving access to polling places and requiring accommodations for people with disabilities – like the ability to vote privately. Until I moved to South Carolina a few years ago and became active with the SC Disability Voting Coalition, I had never heard of HAVA. I’ve since learned that those of us with disabilities have the right to accommodations that allow us to vote as freely as we ever did and to maintain a level of dignity and privacy. Unfortunately many polling places are not compliant with HAVA.
In anticipation of the polls opening this November in another critical election year, I’m making sure that my officials pay attention to where and how I will vote. Headlines of broken voting machines or rigged elections are of little concern to me when I have to park two blocks away because there isn’t enough accessible parking close by, or walk up two flights of stairs without a hand railing because there isn’t a ramp, or leave my polling place without voting because I can’t stand in line too long and no sign or poll worker communicated that curbside voting is available. This year, when I finally make it into the polling station, I will have planned ahead to know that I won’t have to use two hands to manage the voting machine while standing without my cane (or trying to find a place to put the cane because if it falls to the floor, I can’t bend over to pick it back up). I will vote!
As many people have said, voting isn’t a right. It’s the right – the one right that all our other rights depend upon. Make sure your polling place meets the access and accommodation requirements of the Help America Vote Act – in advance of election day. Find ideas here. It won’t cost much, if anything. And, besides, it’s the law.