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Voting is a Fundamental American Right, but Not Easy for Everyone

Disabled, elderly often face hurdles when casting a ballot

Oct. 28, 2008

Story Contact:  Jennifer Faddis, (573) 882-6217,

COLUMBIA, Mo. – As Americans head to the polls next week, many will take for granted the ease of casting their ballots. In the 2000 presidential election, widespread lack of help for people with various disabilities was reported. The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) was signed into law in 2002, in part to create greater accessibility at the polls. A University of Missouri expert says much work is yet to be done.

“For a long time, people with disabilities simply couldn’t go to their local precinct. They say that voting is such a central part of democracy that not having access feels like they don’t count. They want to be involved like everyone else,” said Julie Brinkhoff, associate director of the Great Plains ADA Center.

The secretary of The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is authorized to provide funding to state and local governments to help assure that polling places are accessible to all individuals with disabilities, including the blind and visually impaired. Accommodations should be made in the path of travel, entrances, exits and voting areas of each polling facility in order to provide the same opportunity for access and participation (including privacy and independence) as for other voters.

“Many times people don’t realize until they arrive at their polling places that access is limited,” Brinkhoff said. “If the polling location is in a rural area, a gravel parking lot may hinder people with mobility issues. Often churches, schools or grocery stores may only have steps, providing no access for people with disabilities.”

HAVA requires that local governments provide information about the accessibility of polling places, including outreach programs, to inform individuals about the availability of accessible polling places. HAVA also mandates that election officials, poll workers and election volunteers are trained on the best ways to promote access and participation of individuals with disabilities.

 “In the past, people who are blind or have low vision required someone else to complete their ballot for them and trust that their choices were being honored. It was uncomfortable because privacy and confidentially are major issues when voting. These voters were not being given the same rights as others to cast confidential ballots,” Brinkhoff said. “So, not all problems are mobility issues.”

HAVA requires each polling location to have at least one voting system accessible to individuals with disabilities, including non-visual accessibility for the blind and visually impaired.

The MU’s Disability and Business Technical Assistance Center – Great Plains ADA Center – part of the MU School of Health Professions – is one of just 10 in the nation. ADA Centers are a project of the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research. The Centers are authorized to provide information, materials, training and technical assistance concerning the Americans with Disabilities Act and related disability laws.