Voting access often difficult for disabled Americans

Section 3839, of the 1895 Political Code of California read as follows: “Every male inhabitant of this State, over twenty-one and under sixty years of age, except paupers, insane persons and Indians, must annually pay a Poll Tax of two dollars.”

It used to be that paying a poll tax was a precondition to exercising the right to vote and nothing short of decades of fierce struggle by dreamers from all walks of life changed that fact. The disability-rights movement, which started in the Bay Area in the 1970s, undertook a similarly monumental task: To redefine what it means in society to be disabled. Before then, disability was seen as a set of limitations that prevented function within society by the individual.

The disability-rights movement has recast disability, instead, as a problem of society being rigidly designed in ways that exclude people with disabilities. The solution is to fix society. These concepts were, and remain, revolutionary.

Cathryn Cudlick, history professor at San Francisco State University, says, “There weren’t any laws that explicitly said, ‘You have a disability, so you can’t vote,’ but a presumption that someone was able-bodied was built into the actual voting practices. Disability is at the heart of all thinking about inequality. Women were thought to be irrational and hysterical, African Americans were thought to be intellectually inferior, and many times throughout our histories, the supposed disabilities of different ethnic groups have been evoked as justification for restricting the right to vote.”

The civil-rights movement was instrumental in broadening voting rights to many groups of people. Literacy tests and poll taxes — not to mention threats and violence — had made voting an unrealistic feat for many marginalized populations. One of the crowning achievements of the civil-rights movement, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, deemed such actions illegal. As of 1965, citizens with disabilities gained the legal protections necessary to ensure the right to vote. Unfortunately, getting through the front door of the polling place is often still an issue. In 1975, the act was amended to include people who couldn’t read or write in English well enough to participate. In 1982, the act was amended again with a provision that allowed people who were “blind or otherwise disabled” to bring an assistant of their choice to help them vote. In 1984, the Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act further expanded accessibility, requiring polling places to have auxiliary aids (such as larger print) available to people who had physical disabilities. In addition, the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act and the 2004 Help America Vote Act codified many of the regulations necessary to providing equal access to the vote.

According to a new poll conducted by Respect Ability and published by the Huffington Post, “The majority of likely American voters are experiencing disability, either because they have a disability or have a loved one who does. It impacts voting, and elected officials need to pay attention.”

While conventional wisdom has long held that disability rights are the purview of the Democratic Party, the poll shows otherwise. Among likely voters with disabilities, 31 percent are Democrats, 31 percent are independents and 36 percent are Republicans. Clearly, this represents the ultimate swing-vote group. This community is far bigger than many people realize.

Now is the time for candidates to bring forward their plans so that all Americans, regardless of their abilities, have the opportunity to work and to succeed. After all, the right to democratically participate in public life is the foundation upon which this country aspires to have been built — let’s make it a reality.

Jessie Lorenz is executive director of the Independent Living Resource Center San Francisco.

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