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Disability advocates ‘don’t play around’ with voting rights, yet challenges remain at the polls

Courtesy of Maria Bell

People living with developmental disabilities often have to overcome more challenges to cast their ballots than the average voter. As they navigate those hurdles, some Western New York advocates in the disability community are also tired of being an overlooked voting bloc.

Maria Bell moved to Western New York in the early 1990s, when she was about 30 years old. Soon after, she went to vote in one of her first area elections, and it didn’t go quite as smoothly as she’d hoped.

“When it came to my turn, the woman looked at me, like she goes, ‘What are you doing here?’” Bell recalled in a Zoom interview with WBFO in mid-October.

Bell said the poll worker falsely tried to tell her that she wasn’t registered to vote at that polling site, Lancaster High School. When Bell pulled out her voter registration card, the worker switched to trying to tell her who to vote for.

“It's like, ‘You can't, you know, you're disabled. You can't think,’” Bell said. “I said to her, ‘Ma'am, I might be in a wheelchair, but I have a brain and I'm going to use it the way I think I should.’ And after I said that she said nothing more.”

Bell uses a wheelchair because she was born with Cerebral palsy, a neurological condition that affects body movement and muscle coordination. And her story is not unique: People living with developmental disabilities—a wide range of physical and/or intellectual conditions that develop early in life—have historically been denied the right to vote either by law or practice. Even today, some just might not be empowered to cast a ballot.

“People honestly who work in the system—I’m one of those people, but I’m different—just assume that people with developmental disabilities really don’t care about voting so why should we talk about it?” said BJ Stasio, president of the board of directors of the Self-Advocacy Association of New York State (SANYS). “We should talk about it because it’s their civil right as a U.S. citizen and as a human being.”

Credit Courtesy of BJ Stasio
BJ Stasio is president of the board of directors of the Self-Advocacy Association of New York State.

SANYS is a statewide organization founded and led by people like Stasio who are living with developmental disabilities. The group aims to help self-advocates speak up for themselves and their civil rights.

The system Stasio mentioned is made up of the agencies and direct support professionals who provide services and help care for some people with disabilities, including in group homes. That’s who SANYS initially focused on educating about the importance of voting for people in their care, but fellow self-advocate Samuel Mattle said it’s still important to reach those voters directly, too.

“A whole big group of people with disabilities fought for the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] to be passed and I think they forgot about us after that,” said Mattle, who serves as executive director of the Center for Self Advocacy in Buffalo, an organization that helps people with intellectual and developmental disabilities work and lead independent and productive lives. The ADA is the landmark legislation that prohibits a wide range of discrimination against people living with disabilities and which turned 30 this year.

“I think we need to get back to being a voting bloc that people look at, that our legislators look at, that the presidents look at,” Mattle said.

A study published last month by researchers at Rutgers University found that a projected 38.3 million people with disabilities are eligible to vote this election season—more than both the number of eligible Black (29.9 million) and Hispanic/Latino (31.3 million) voters. The researchers concluded that people living with disabilities along with their family members “have the potential to swing elections,” yet there are still challenges to realizing Mattle’s dream.

"When it comes to voting, advocates in Western New York don’t play around."

SANYS Western Regional Coordinator Sophia Roberts told WBFO that obstacles to voting for people living with a wide range of disabilities can include inaccessible polling sites, ballot marking devices that don’t work or a basic lack of advertising for them.

“You don't have to be labeled as a person with disability or even think of yourself as someone with a disability to be advantaged by a ballot marking device,” Roberts said, referring to the accessible voting machine that can read ballots to voters, if needed, and fill in the correct ovals for those who either aren’t able to or choose not to use a pen. “And there's this Catch-22 because poll workers will say, ‘Well, no one uses them, and then the machines don't get used, so they don't work.’ But no one knows about them. How would you know about them?”

Credit New York State Board of Elections
A screenshot from the New York State Board of Elections website provides information about the ballot marking device currently used in Erie County and other large counties across New York State.

“That, quite frankly, is a weakness,” said Norman Green, Democratic Commissioner of Elections for Chautauqua County, when asked why the availability of ballot marking devices isn’t better advertised. Green said it might not be a “fair position” but that it often takes pressure from disability advocates to secure accessibility measures that are legally required at every polling site.

“What happens is the more, though, that the disability groups push their membership to demand the services from the elections office, the more that we're going to provide the services,” he said. “We’re prepared for it but are we advertising for people to come in? Well, we're not advertising because we're not [getting asked for ballot marking devices]—it's a vicious circle.”

Green also said rural Chautauqua County just doesn’t have the same level of demand for accessible voting services as larger Western New York counties like Erie. Stasio said the Erie County Board of Elections goes “above and beyond” the rest of the state, not in small part because they’re encouraged by a strong community of self-advocates.

“When it comes to voting, advocates in Western New York don’t play around,” Stasio said.

WBFO also reached out to both the Democratic and Republican elections commissioners in Niagara County for comment, but neither responded to our request. However, Green added that voters living with all kinds of disabilities across the state won a victory before the June primaries this year as the result of a lawsuit that forced the New York State Board of Elections to agree to provide accessible ballot applications on all of its websites.

“Formerly, they would have voted with the assistance of someone, but now they're going to be able to mark their ballots at home using their computer,” Green said. “They're going to be able to fold it up and no one's ever going to know who they voted for. It will be the secret that it should be for everybody.”

Unfortunately, the accessible ballots still don’t work for every voter living with a disability, some of whom may not have access to a printer at home or may not be able to fold and mail their ballot independently.

When it comes to the issues and political affiliations that motivate people living with disabilities to vote, the Rutgers study found the partisan split among the disability community to be about the same as among other citizens. However, people with disabilities tend to prioritize health care and employment issues.

“This is everyday life that we’re talking about,” Roberts said. “People who need help on an everyday way are a little bit more reliant or a little bit more affected by government policies than those who don't need help on an everyday basis. And so, it's crucial. It's the difference between living in your own apartment and living in an institution.”

Still, self-advocates like Stasio, Mattle and Bell want the public to know that people living with developmental disabilities aren’t just voting based on one issue.

“People with disabilities, they care about the environment. They do care about other things that are going on in the world,” Mattle said. “It doesn’t matter if you have a R or a D or an I, we want to know that you’re advocating for us and our needs and our policies that we care about.”

Kyle Mackie is a multimedia journalist with reporting experience in Israel and the Palestinian territories, the Western Balkans and New York City. She joined WBFO to cover education and more in June 2019.
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