Demystifying Disability

Creating better outreach and access for voters with disabilities

By Genya Coulter, Twitter Goddess and Guest Blogger for U.S. Vote Foundation

According to the American Association of Persons With Disabilities (AADP), 35.4 million people living with a disability were eligible to vote in 2016. That’s about one sixth of all eligible voters. If you add in those of us who are family members or caregivers, that total jumps to 62.7 million eligible voters. Organizations created for and by the disabled have done a spectacular job fighting against discrimination, barriers to physical  access, and plain old stigma and patronizing attitudes. In honor of their hard work and National Disability Voter Registration Week, here’s a practical guide for the election community to better serve a diverse and growing population of voters.

Before the election: Do you know a disabled person, or caregiver? Do you have a good working relationship with diverse organizations that serve and involve the disabled? If not, check out the many organizations listed in the “Resources” section at the end of this article. Bring the Get Out The Vote drives to those who request it. If your state offers online voter  registration (OVR), don’t be shy. OVR empowers those with disabilities: make sure as many people as possible know this option exists.

Ask everyone if they’re registered to vote or if anyone might need to update their voter registration record. For voters with a disability that impairs motor skills over time, be sure to remind them that they can always update their signature prior to an election. Always be sure that there is simply and clearly explained information regarding Voter ID laws applying to the given state, and in states with “hard” book closing, make sure there is enough lead time for voters without ID to obtain one. If you have a Vote Riders chapter in your city, make sure to connect with them. They provide a wonderful service.

Vote By Mail is a great option for many disabled voters, and it’s what we live for at the U.S. Vote Foundation.

On the technical level, work within the best practices set forth by The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) for websites, and if possible, have voters with different types of disabilities pilot test the site and have the site designers work with the suggestions from these voters as well. HTML is your friend here. Many PDFs aren’t ADA compliant, and those voters who use sight readers or other visual aids have difficulty reading that format. Blind voters will appreciate a clear audio instruction. Deaf voters are going to need a streamlined and simple layout. If you have anybody on your election team who is fluent in sign language, team up to create a video voters using Ameslan can refer to. Always have at least two ways to contact the election office: one for computer users, one for those who may not have computer access.

During the election: The quickest way to improve access and service for disabled voters? Adding precinct staff who have a disability or are comfortable working with disabled voters. I speak from experience here: it’s hard to visualize just how much space it takes for a wheelchair to go through a doorway or turn around unless you’ve actually had to do both in an unfamiliar polling place. Sometimes it is simply a sign that isn’t placed where it needs to be. Is polling staff properly trained to assist voters with  both visible and “invisible” disabilities? Are they respectful and patient? Do they know how to properly interact with service animals? Do the polling place captain and the equipment operator both understand how to properly set up and troubleshoot assisted voting technology? Do they have a dedicated hotline operator who can quickly get help to their location or talk them through a technical difficulty? Is there enough disabled parking? (Even small towns require one spot out of eight to be marked for the disabled.) The ADA Checklist is vital, but there are some situations that it doesn’t cover well enough.

An election team that takes the initiative to create a welcoming voting location can boost turnout in many unexpected ways. My favorite example from my Early Voting location: A voter came in to vote, and mentioned she worked with an organization dedicated to helping disabled young adults transition to independent living. I asked her if any of the teenagers she worked with were registered to vote. It took two days and both Early Voting teams to work out the timing and logistics…but in the end 26 brand new voters cast ballots during Early Voting, and 10 were able to vote by mail. The biggest issue we had was managing the line of wheelchairs! (Only being allowed to use half of a room presented a few layout challenges!)

Realistically, this could not have been arranged on Election Day. Early Voting has its advantages, and the opportunity to accommodate a bus or two of excited young voters was definitely one of them. If your state offers Early Voting, make sure organizations that work with the disabled know about it and that the polling site team is ready to assist their voters.

Senior poll staff should also be trained to diplomatically handle situations where a disabled voter’s competency is challenged. Election workers ARE NOT THE COURT.  They are not allowed to refuse a ballot based on a perception of competency, and doing so is a potentially serious violation of a disabled voter’s federal rights. Even voters under a guardianship are entitled to cast a ballot- some states may require a provisional ballot be issued ,but not every state has that requirement. Literacy tests were outlawed decades ago…and they were not meant to be replaced by competency tests. Politely remind bystanders who wish to challenge a disabled voter that filing a challenge is a serious matter, and false or maliciously filed challenges are a first degree misdemeanor.

Assisted Voting Technology is a GOOD thing: While a voter can certainly bring a designated assistance person or have two pollworkers read and mark the ballot as the voter wishes, many disabled people prefer to vote on their own – and that is completely understandable.  The Help America Vote Act of 2002 specified that all voters must be provided the opportunity to cast a ballot privately and independently. Right now, DRE/touchscreen voting machines are the most practical way for certain voters to vote without assistance. Braille is only understood by one seventh of blind voters. (I can read and write in Braille, but not one blind person of the many I know uses it.) Asking a paralyzed voter to hold a pencil in their teeth sideways to mark the teeny bubbles on an optical scan ballot is just cruel. Some voters may struggle with sight or reading, and an audio ballot machine is the best option.  The current obsessive focus on voting machine security and “vote hacking” seems rather cavalier towards voters who count on AVT to exercise their right to vote. Perhaps more effort and capital could be channeled into innovating better assistive tech and ballot design for the voters who need it, instead of insisting on hand counted paper ballots as the blanket solution.

Encourage voters to report access issues: Always provide voters with a method of contacting their election office first and foremost, and make sure the office investigates and follows up with voters. Keep HAVA violation forms and polling place incident reports in the location supply kit. If appropriate, explain to a voter how to contact the DOJ Disability Rights Division. Keep detailed records of everything at the ready in case of an audit or investigation. 866-OUR – VOTE  is a valuable resource as well.

Even if there were few to no serious problems during the election, try to stay in touch with your disabled voters. Ask how their experience was, if they were a first time voter, or if their experience was better or worse than the last time they voted. Anecdotes are great…but try to amass as much hard data as possible via survey or voter feedback forms. In the age of data analysis, comparing and contrasting policies and practices is faster than ever. This is a powerful tool that can be used to shatter stereotypes and build an accessible ADA compliant pathway to future elections where any voter living with a disability can vote independently and confidently.

The rallying cry of many disability organizations is “Nothing About Us, Without Us”. That should go for voting and elections as well. Let’s get to work!



American Association of Persons With Disabilities: advocacy, information, support, media, tools, and political action for people with disabilities, creator of #RevUp.

The Ruderman Foundation: advocacy, information, creator of a fantastic “white paper” with excellent tips on best serving disabled voters.

The Disability Visibility Project: innovative nonprofit civic engagement site run by millenials living with disabilities. Information, advocacy, social media, civic tech

ADA: Federal website with every disability related topic from accessibility and compliance laws to assistive technology to best practices in IT. Essential for ALL election offices!

SignVote: provides voter instruction in Ameslan for the deaf/hard of hearing.

Election Assistance Commission: Federal panel that provides assistance, best practices, information and testing/certification for ADA compliant voting technology.

VoteRiders: Provides practical assistance for voters needing ID, also provides transportation to gov offices and polling places.

U.S. Vote Foundation: Non profit site that links voters with voter registration, provides a database of local election dates and deadlines, handles absentee ballot requests from anywhere in the world.