ADA 32 years later: Voting challenges for disabled Americans persist – USA TODAY

Before they can cast their ballots, voters with disabilities often say they have difficulties getting information on how to participate in the electoral process. That’s because many disabled Americans say they have limited access to the internet, according to a report released Tuesday. 
“The tremendous expansion of the internet over recent decades has made it easier for many to obtain voting information, but the expansion has left many people with disabilities behind,” according to the survey from Rutgers University in New Jersey and the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. 
The survey was released on the 32nd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which required states to make voting more accessible and provided other sweeping protections for people with disabilities. 
About 47.2 million voters are disabled Americans, according to the survey. 
Thomas Hicks, chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, said the survey shows there needs to be more accurate voting information from different sources.
“That information should come from election officials as a trusted source. And so, as a trusted source, how are they getting that information out to people?” he said. “It’s usually through the internet. But through the survey, we’ve seen that not everyone has access.”
ELECTIONS: 30 years after the ADA, access to voting for people with disabilities is still an issue
Voting accessibility experts said the survey is the latest evidence that more needs to be done to ensure Americans with disabilities have full access to the ballot. Disabled Americans include people with mobility, cognitive, hearing and vision impairments, all of which can create unique barriers to voting.
“If a person can’t access voting information, they may not know where a person stands on the issues that are most important to them. They may not even know how to find this information. More elections, especially on a local level, have more and more people running. This means more people with more views,” said Jeff Peters, director of communications for the Center for Independence of the Disabled, New York, a non-profit based in New York City. 
People with disabilities are more likely to use non-internet-based voting information, including printed mailings from election offices, television and speaking with loved ones, according to the survey. 
About 15% of disabled voters don’t have access to the internet, compared with only 5% of people without disabilities, according to the study.
Internet users are more likely than non-users to have voted in 2020 and to have a voting plan in 2022. 
When asked why they don’t use the internet, many disabled Americans said they “don’t need it or (are) not interested,” according to the survey. Cost was another driving factor, the survey found. 
Disability rights advocates said that if people cannot get the information to vote, those barriers can stifle voter turnout. 
Maria Samuels, executive director of the nonprofit Westchester Disabled on the Move in New York, said voting and daily accessibility challenges in a disabled person’s life can lead to “a profound sense of frustration.” 
“This easily leads to a feeling of helplessness that can too often conclude with deciding your vote does not count,” Samuels said.
Zach Garafalo, manager of the nonprofit Government Affairs Center for Disability Rights in New York, said voting barriers can result in apathy “and perpetuates feelings of hopelessness.”
Christina Asbee, of the nonprofit organization Disability Rights New York, said another problem her organization sees is that many candidates do not make their materials and programs eligible to all voters. 
“For example, candidates may hold public forums without closed captioning or American Sign Language, in a venue that is inaccessible to a voter who uses a wheelchair, or may not understand the important issues of the disability community they want to represent simply because they have not asked or reached out,” she said.
“More often than not, candidates do not use the term ‘disability’ or do not consider the needs of the disability community in their candidacy.”
At the same time, some worry that recent gains in voting within the disabled community could be wiped away with the passage of more restrictive voting laws in states across the country. 
Voter turnout surged in 2020 compared with the 2018 election, an earlier study from Rutgers University found. States providing easier access to voting by mail in 2020 appeared to have slightly higher turnout increases compared with 2016 among voters with disabilities, although the differences were within the margin of error.
Since last year, 18 states have passed 34 restrict­ive voting laws, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. 
“I am extremely worried about the elections in November,” said Mia Ives-Rublee, director of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan policy institute. “To reduce the amount of time of early voting, to reduce ballot drop boxes, all of that is going to specifically impact disabled people.”
Experts said voters with disabilities who find it challenging to find information about elections should let it be known, whether that be voicing their concerns to lawmakers or to the board of elections.
Disability rights advocates said social workers and case managers can help. They also suggested reaching out to a voting rights group or a disability rights organization. 
Samuels of Westchester Disabled on the Move said officials need to be mindful of people with disabilities as they construct websites and approve other voting technology. 
“At the point that they’re building and planning, the needs of people with disabilities should be a main concern, along with every other concern. Not afterward,” she said. “But that continues to be the way things are running.”
Tiffany Cusaac-Smith covers race and history for USA TODAY. Click here for her latest stories. Follow her on Twitter @T_Cusaac


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