Election Day equality: Access is crucial for those with disabilities

Illustrations by Megan Creasey
Illustrations by Megan Creasey

Voters with disabilities can face challenges when heading to the polls, including difficulty finding transportation to polling locations, challenges accessing polling booths or filling out traditional ballots and anxieties surrounding the voting process that may discourage them from participating. But local groups in Johnson and Linn counties are working to make sure these barriers do not discourage participation in the November election.

“I wanted the community to come together and see these people are human and they have the right to vote,” said Harry Olmstead, who helped organize Election Day transportation opportunities for individuals with disabilities in Iowa City and Coralville.

“Some need help, but they are human and have feelings and understand what is going on,” Olmstead said.

One out of every five adults has some kind of disability, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s about 53 million adults. Individuals with disabilities cross a broad spectrum, from individuals with visible disabilities that might require them to use a wheelchair or other assistance to individuals who have impaired vision or a neurodevelopment disorder like autism spectrum disorder.

During the last presidential election in 2012, 15.6 million people with disabilities voted. That number would have been higher, by three million people, if people with disabilities voted at the same turnout levels as the rest of the population, according to research from Rutgers University.

That research showed almost one-third of voters with disabilities faced difficulties voting at their polling place, including challenges reading or seeing the ballot or understanding how to use the voting equipment. Only 8.4 percent of voters without disabilities reported difficulties.


Olmstead worked to apply for a $1,500 grant from Iowans with Disabilities in Action (ID Action), which promotes civic and political participation among people with disabilities. The winners, including Olmstead, were notified this August. The grant will help individuals with disabilities access the polls in Iowa City and Coralville.

“I knew one of the drawbacks for people is affordable, accessible transportation,” Olmstead said, referencing some of the challenges reported in the Rutgers study. Olmstead himself relies on a wheelchair to get around.

Persons with disabilities can ride fixed route public transportation for free on Election Day if they have a valid disability pass or ADA Paratransit certification card. Johnson County SEATS will also offer free paratransit services on Election Day for certified riders who reserve a ride.

Grants from ID Action also went to Peer Action Disability Support (PADS) in Cedar Rapids for a candidate forum and voter training session. The group, which is nonpartisan, also is helping individuals with transportation to and from the polls for early voting as well as on Election Day. Rides through LIFTS will be available in the Metro area only — Cedar Rapids, Marion and Hiawatha.

“People with disabilities are a huge part of our population and are very underrepresented. It’s important to help them get informed and get out to vote so that they have a voice and feel like they can be involved in the democratic process,” Catherine Hafsi, PADS’ president, said.
Earlier this month, Olmstead and a group of volunteers and advocates gathered in Iowa City to help train volunteers to work at local polls on election day to provide assistance to individuals with disabilities.

“I’m motivated to help people make their lives better and I think a lot of people with disabilities are disenfranchised, either because they are afraid to ask for help or people don’t know how to help,” Renee Speh, a community advocate who attended the event, said.

Although access to absentee ballots in Iowa — either through mail-in ballots or in-person early voting locations — can ease access to polls, Chelsey Markle, vice-president of programs with the Arc of Southeast Iowa, said it was still important to provide access to those who want to vote on Election Day.

“There’s something special about being able to go to the polls and participate with everyone else,” Markle said.


Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), polling places must be accessible and meet a checklist of requirements including accessible parking and doorways and pathways that are wide enough to allow individuals with disabilities to maneuver through safely.

“Accessibility varies county to county,” Rik Shannon, the public policy manager for the Iowa Developmental Disabilities Council and ID Action, said. “One of the problems is the availability of accessible locations, especially in some rural areas.”

However, he said it’s not fair to categorize it as a rural versus urban issue as some rural areas have very good access.

A 2013 U.S. Government Accountability Office report estimated that only 27 percent of polling places were fully accessible in during the 2008 election. That’s up from 16 percent in 2000.

Shannon said improved accessibility at polling stations, more accessible voting equipment, increased absentee voting opportunities and same-day voter registration has expanded voting opportunities for both people with disabilities and those without.

Travis Weipert, the Johnson County auditor, said his office is working hard to make sure that each polling place is as accessible as possible. He said the office is taking steps such as adding temporary handicap-accessible parking spaces at the auditor’s office, where in-person absentee voting is taking place prior to Election Day.

Under the Help America Vote Act, polling places are required to have at least one accessible voting machine, which can enable people who are blind or visually impaired to vote independently. Each Iowa polling location must have at least one of the four accessible voting machines approved by the state. Voters can find out what machines are used in their county through the Iowa Secretary of State’s website and also access instructional videos for each machine.

Other measures, including curbside voting and help filling out ballots can also be requested.

For individuals who have a legal guardian, often to help with financial decisions, questions often arise about whether or not that person is able to vote, Shannon said.

“Having a guardian does not make you incompetent to vote. It has to come from a court decision,” he said.

He noted that even those who have been declared incompetent to vote by a court can re-petition to have their right restored.

Invisible barriers

Some barriers to voting may not be immediately visible to poll workers. Shannon said they’ve found the number one barrier to voting is that people are overwhelmed by the amount of information out there or uncertain how to access that information — whether it’s information about the voting process, how to register or information about where the candidates stand on policy issues.

For those on the autism spectrum, the challenges can include feeling overwhelmed by the amount of information available and becoming anxious about the need to navigate the social aspects of the voting process when voting in person, said Heather Hanzlick-Jaacks, an autism spectrum consultant with Tanager Place who helped organize a voting guide specifically for those on the autism spectrum.

“We’re not crazy, not lazy, not begging for attention,” said Joel Shrader, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s (which in 2013 was folded into Autism Spectrum Disorder) when he was in his twenties. “We don’t want pity and we’re not doing this to annoy you or to cause problems. We just want to have our voices heard and this is hard for us. We’re not asking for special treatment; this is just us asking for equal opportunities to be heard.”

Shrader helped work on the voting guide, pulling from his own voting experiences. Shrader was selected as a delegate for John Kerry during the 2004 Iowa Caucuses and canvassed for Obama during the 2008 elections.

“Do what you can,” he said. “At those times, in 2004 and 2008, I did what I was capable of. You don’t have to be a delegate. You can do other things to participate.”

The voter guide works to break the voting and registration process down into easy-to-follow steps. The guide also encourages individuals on the autism spectrum to continue their civic engagement post-election by sharing information about how to communicate with elected officials and government agencies.

“I hope people read it and decide to vote,” Mike Dierdorff, an autism self-advocate who also helped with the voting guide, said. “I hope they get the word out that although you have a disability, you can vote and your voice can be heard because I think a lot of times we don’t think our voice is heard.”

The voter guide specifies what individuals can expect to see on Election Day and offers advice about how to reach out to friends, family or poll workers to get help or support when casting a ballot. Because each precinct location is set up differently on Election Day, it can be hard for individuals on the spectrum to prepare.

“It may be easy for neurotypical individuals to come in and sit back and view the lines and the interactions and pick up on the social cues, but that’s not the case for everyone,” Hanzlick-Jaacks said.

She said many of the advocates involved in creating the voter guide had tried to Google voting tips for individuals on the spectrum, but couldn’t find anything online and decided to create a guide themselves.

The creation of the guide and a meeting to present the guide and other information about political participation were supported through a grant from ID Action and presented by Tanager Place, the Corridor Autism Resource Expo and the Regional Autism Assistance Program. The guide is available online for anyone who is interested.

“Everybody’s voice should be heard,” Dierdorff said. “That’s how this country was built. If your voice is heard you feel like you are part of the process.”

Lauren Shotwell is Little Village’s News Director. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 209.

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