Voters with disabilities sue Washington, DC over access
WASHINGTON, DC, Sept. 5, 2001 -- The American Association of People with Disabilities and the Disability Rights Council are suing the city of Washington DC for discriminating against voters with disabilities in its decision to purchase inaccessible voting equipment, and claiming that a number of the voting sites remain inacccessible to wheelchair users. The groups charge the city with violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
"Some 16,000 voters with significant visual impairments, like me, are denied the right to vote in the manner most Americans take for granted -- independently and by secret ballot," said AAPD vice president Jim Dickson, one of the 5 individual plaintiffs named in the suit. "Voting equipment that would permit disabled people to vote independently is readily available; nevertheless, the District is now purchasing new inaccessible optical scan voting systems from Sequoia Pacific, whose accessible voting system is in use in places like Riverside, California."
The optical scan system requires marking one's vote on a paper ballot, which is then fed into a scanner to be recorded and tabulated. Optical scan voting equipment is not accessible. Today's suit, filed in federal court, seeks to require the District to purchase equipment that uses voice commands, remote switches, "or other features that make voting by secret ballot possible for persons with visual and manual disabilities.
"There are thousands of DC voters with physical disabilities who cannot even get into their neighborhood polling sites," Dickson adds. The suit charges that 23 of the District's 140 polling sites remain inaccessible due to steps or stairs.
"This lawsuit is one of many to be filed against cities, counties and states, like Florida, who perpetuate discrimination by continuing to exclude citizens with disabilities from equal access to voting," says Dickson, and adds that "Florida is in the process of purchasing optical scan voting systems which will continue to deny America's blind community and those who cannot use their hands the right to cast a secret, independent ballot."
The ADA requires public entities like the District to ensure that people with disabilities not be excluded from -- "indeed that they have equal opportunity to participate in," say plaintiffs -- its services, programs, or activities. The law requires that equipment be designed and constructed to be accessible, and that primary consideration be given to the requests of people with disabilities for the kinds of aids and services they desire. "These requirements are being violated by the District's decision to perpetuate inaccessibility for the foreseeable future in the purchase of new equipment," say plaintiffs.
The Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees all citizens the right to equal protection of the laws, protects the right to vote in secrecy. Many states have laws guaranteeing the right to vote in secret, which means that it is now unjustifiable to deny large numbers of people with disabilities that right. "The technology exists. The law requires it," says AAPD.
Individual plaintiffs include Dickson, Jocelyn Bassnett, Linda Black and Thomas Miller, all of whom are legally blind, and Christopher Butler, who uses a wheelchair. Other plaintiffs include the Disability Rights Council of Greater Washington and the American Association of People with Disabilities.
Kay Schriner and Douglas Kruse have conducted a number of studies about voting access and persons with disabilities.
Kay Schriner, Ph.D., Department of Political Science
The Trace R&D Center was formed in 1971 to address the communication needs of people who are nonspeaking and have severe disabilities. Its director is Gregg Vanderheiden.
Trace Research and Development Center
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The Project on Disability Politics at the University of Arkansas looks at political participation of people with disabilities, voting rights laws affecting people with disabilities and disability in American campaigns and elections.