By Hari Srinivasan
As I finished marking off my mail in ballot, I thought of the words of Justin Dart, considered the godfather of Americans with Disabilities Act -
“Vote, like your life depends on it,
because it does,”
Disabled people were not always allowed to vote. They were thought to be too mentally incompetent to even lend a voice on deciding the very elected officials who would decide their lives and futures. Their voice was silenced and they were not allowed a seat at the decision making table.
“Nothing about us without us,” is the mantra of the Disability Rights Movement.
Not many are aware that there are laws which protect voting rights for people with disabilities. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 allows an individual to receive assistance with voting from a person of their choice. That law also says a voter is not required to pass any kind of test, meet a minimum educational requirement, or know how to read or write in order to vote. The Jim Crow era practice of discriminatory voting procedures very much applied to people with disabilities as well as people of color.
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 further pushed the boundaries of civil liberties for the disabled. The one line legislation is widely regarded as the first anti-discrimination law for people with disabilities. It took a 28-day-long-sit-in (the longest sit-in in US history) by 150 disabled people at the San Francisco Federal Building to get this important legislation signed. Section 504 says that we cannot be discriminated against for any reason whatsoever. Disability Rights are really civil rights.
The Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act of 1984 mandated that polling places be made accessible for the elderly and the disabled. This was especially critical for the physically disabled as you may not be able to get into a polling location if the only way is through a flight of stairs. An alternative means to vote had to be provided if there was no accessible polling place.
In 1990, Congress passed the defining legislation for people with disabilities, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This comprehensive mandate looked at discrimination in numerous areas including critical areas like voting.
Since then, the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 worked on increasing registration amongst historically marginalized groups like the disabled and required that alternative means of voting must be provided. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 requires that there be at least one accessible voting system at each polling location in order to ensure equal opportunity for access and participation.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the ADA. The disabled community still faces enormous disenfranchisement. Violations of ADA abound. Unfortunately, the way ADA was set up is that the only way to redress violations is through lawsuits. Practically speaking, this is a strain for the disabled community and for their families as they lack the time, resources, and energy to keep fighting for their rights through lawsuits.
A September 25th article in the New York Times, “‘A Failed System’: What It’s Like to Vote With a Disability During a Pandemic,” further highlighted how the pandemic aggravates the problems for the ‘at-risk’ and vulnerable voices.
Voting is the many voices that make up a democracy. Not voting is like giving up your voice. In everyday life, we are quick to voice our opinions on anything and everything. Why would you choose to surrender your voice when it matters the most?
Your vote matters. Voting goes beyond the messy electoral college that seems to disproportionately determine who occupies the White House. It’s also about who will represent you in the House and in the Senate, at the state level, in your city council and who manages your local transportation, schools, parks and recreation. Every one of these people will impact your life, directly or indirectly. Your voice helps drive priorities and measures in your city and neighborhood. Our voice can help shape a better quality of life and also pave the way for those who are disenfranchised.
“Every single person has a role in producing change,” stresses legendary disability rights activist, Judy Heumann.
I voted. Did you?
Tag @NeuroNavLife on instagram with your “I voted” sticker!