to the United States Census, more than 10 million voters with disabilities
are unable to exercise the right to vote because their visual impairment
makes it difficult or impossible to read the printed ballot or a voting
screen. In addition, there are more than 1.2 million Americans whose
hand or arm disability prevents them from using a pen. These voters
must rely on the courtesy of family members, friends, or, sometimes,
strangers to cast their votes. This state of affairs is especially ironic
in a country such as the United States, where millions of people with
disabilities lead their lives independently. People with disabilities
go to work; they shop; they go about their normal lives with little
outside help. However, unthinkable as it is, they cannot cast their
ballots in secret.
Prototypes of such systems already exist in some states. It is a matter of making them available, consistently, throughout America. Texas, for example, has led the way in election reform for people with disabilities. In 1999, current U.S. President and then-Governor George W. Bush signed into law legislation requiring any new voting system purchased to be fully accessible to voters with disabilities. Further, the system had to make provisions for blind voters or voters with low vision to cast their ballot independently and in secrecy. Two simple adaptations were made to existing computer systems: speech synthesis for blind voters, so that they could actually hear the ballot, and special switches enabling voters with arm or hand disabilities to cast their ballots privately.
Rhode Island offers another example of an inclusive voting system. There, voters with visual impairments are given a choice between Braille and tactile ballots, which fit over the standard ballots and allow blind voters to vote independently. The ballot is also accompanied by an audiotape that provides instructions on how to use it. (This "low-tech" approach is considered more adaptable to the situation facing developing nations, which still rely on the paper ballot.)
However, Texas and Rhode Island are two of a small number of exceptions to the U.S. voting system, currently a patchwork of local control. There are roughly 8,500 jurisdictions that conduct local, state, and national elections using more than 120,000 polling places and dozens of voting systems. Twelve manufacturers, each of whom has a very diverse product line, share the bulk of the voting system market. In addition, ten smaller companies also offer selected voting systems. Creating a standardized and consistent voting system conducive to people with disabilities can be challenging in such a situation.
manufacturers tend to think only about mobility impairments and blindness
when designing a new system. They do not consider the needs of voters
with varying disabilities, including those with mental or psychiatric
disabilities. And even when attempting to address the needs of voters
who are blind or use wheelchairs, the manufacturers often do not consult
with academics or experts in the field of "universal design,"
an approach that takes disability and other factors into consideration
at the onset, rather than as an afterthought. Instead, they rely on
feedback from a small, unrepresentative sample of people.
James Dickson is Vice President for Governmental Affairs at the American Association of People with Disabilities and Chair of the Disability Voter Project.