Voting Rights and the Physically Disabled

Voting Rights and the Physically Disabled

Brenna Chaisson, December 2018

The founding of American democracy brought the world a new form of government. American democracy grew from the desire to consent to being governed and have a say in government matters, through the use of elected officials. American democracy was forged to allow the people consent and representation in their own government. This allowed opportunity for their voice to be heard and their interests represented, which they did not experience as a British colony. As time went on and many battles for suffrage were fought, the umbrella of voting rights has grown to cover more groups and minorities. These added groups, beyond the white male property owner, found their suffrage being secured through Constitutional Amendments. Constitutionally, “the right to vote cannot be denied based on race” [1], previous condition of servitude, or sex, between the Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments. The 26th Amendment goes on set the voting age at 18 years old. Once a US Citizen reached the age of majority, there should be no hurtles stopping them from voting. Ideally, this should take into account people with disabilities and ensure that there is no physical, legal, or mental barrier when they head to the polls. However, this is not necessarily the case.

Recent data from 2015 shows that approximately forty million Americans self-identify as disabled. This accounts for around 12.6% of the non-institutionalized population. [2] This is a substantial portion of the population. As long as they meet the age requirement of eighteen, there should be nothing preventing the right to vote. People with disabilities are still a minority group. Like other minority groups, they’re vulnerable to social prejudices and discrimination. This very fact warrants the need for them to have more protection in place, just as we see with women or people of color. When examining the Constitutional amendments that cover voting rights, those with physical disabilities are arguably left without a Constitutionally protected right to vote, which we see with people of color and women. Protection for those in this category fall under several different acts from Congress. Yet, there’s no amendment that’s modeled similarly to the aforementioned that use the term “ability status” or similar. Instead, the protection of suffrage is found from four separate voting acts. None of which passed until the 1960s, notably.

The first piece of legislation introduced comes as part of The Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, created to help enforce voting rights, has established some provision for those with disabilities. This includes the requirement for election officials to allow voters who are blind or have another type of disability to receive assistance while at the polls. Almost a full twenty years later, the Voting Accessibility of the Elderly and Handicapped Act of 1984 was enacted. This act requires polling places for federal elections to be accessible to the elderly and handicapped. When there are no accessible polling places available, voter must have some alternate ways to vote.

In 1990, The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) is passed, which brings by far most protection for disabilities’ suffrage. This act provides the similar protections that the Constitutional Amendments provide based on race, sex, and so on. ADA is an all-encompassing work of legislation that ensures the rights of disabled Americans. ADA covers five different “titles” or areas of disability protection. The bill is specifically broken down into; employment, state and local government programs, accessible public structure, telecommunications, and a variety of miscellaneous aspects. Within the title that deals with all government matter for people with disabilities, there’s specifics on exactly how a polling place needs to be accessible. There was a follow up law, The Help America Vote Act of 2002, further requiring the providing of accessible polling places and privacy for those voting. [3]

With all these provisions in place, it would seem that Americans with disabilities would be treated just as their equals are in the voting booth. However, statistics and personal account paint a vastly different story. The voter turnout for people with disabilities is roughly 6% less than people without disabilities. [4] There is also a 2% less difference between people with disabilities registered to vote as compared to their nondisabled counterparts. While this might not seem like that much of a disparity, if people with disabilities voted at the same rates as the nondisabled, there would be an added 2.2 million more voters in the electorate. [5] To put that in perspective, that’s just a couple hundred thousand shy of the margin that Secretary Hillary Clinton won the popular vote over rival Donald J. Trump in the 2016 election. Those 2.2 million lost voters could potentially be able to change outcomes in elections if they went to the voting booth.

The lack of participation, however, does not seem to stem from a lack of interest. The Pew Research Center looked into the political interest level of people with disabilities. They found, “In a survey conducted in the early summer of 2016, about seven-in-ten (71%) Americans who self-identified as disabled said it ‘really matters who wins the election,’ compared with 59% of Americans who did not report having a disability.” [6] For a group that has a lower voter registration and turnout, statistically, is more interested in elections than their nondisabled counterparts, at a significant 12%. This dismisses any thoughts that the lack of participation comes from a general disinterest by Americans with disabilities, indicating another factor is influencing the numbers.

Similar to other minority groups, the disabled community are no strangers to discrimination and being misunderstood. Even though there are several laws in place to ensure that people with disability have access to the polls and appropriate accommodation. However, like most things, the intent is there but the execution needs improvement. Story after story can be found where a person with disability tells a tale about struggles at the voting booth. A survey looking at the accessibility conducted United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that 60% of polling placing have at least one barrier that would impede a person with disability from accessing the voting booth. [7] These barriers were commonly too-steep sidewalks, uneven terrain, and poor parking positions. While these might seem like minor issues, for people who need to make greater effort to carry out everyday tasks, what seems like a minor inconvenience is akin to things like poll taxes and literacy tests that were used to deter people of color and the poor people from voting.

There’s not only physical barriers that make casting the ballot but it also puts a mental strain on those heading to the polls facing these challenges. A voter from Nebraska, Kathy Hoell, tells not only of her struggles to physically go to the voting booth, but also the struggle she’s had with poll workers. Hoell suffered a brain injury, thus leaving her wheelchair bound and straining to talk. When she went to vote in the 2016 presidential election, the workers insinuated that she was not smart enough to vote. She was then led to a staircase, which she could not climb, and a nonworking polling machine. [8] The case of nonworking polling machine is a common problem. The GAO’s study states that as state inspection of voting accessibility has fallen, and consequently there’s been more troubles with voting accessibility. [9] Another common complaint from people with disabilities was when they ask to use a voting machine, they were met with side eyes and comments of not really needing it, which left them intimidated and discouraged. [10]

The right to vote is arguably one of the most vital parts to citizenship. The nation has seen movement after movement for suffrage. The first was for freed slaves that now were considered citizens. Then came a very long and hard fought battle for women’s suffrage. Even after this rights to vote were granted, we still see a long held continuous struggle to ensure every citizen of the United States of age has the opportunity to cast their ballot on election day. As result, any hindrance from any group when it comes to voting is nothing short of appalling. As can be seen, this doesn’t appear to come from lack of Congressional intervention. As mentioned above, there’s several pieces of legislation that attempt to remedy this issue. Given that there is multiple mentioned of issues with the workers in polling place and a seemingly lack of effort to ensure that polling place, there’s arguably a deeper issue.

People with disabilities, in a very generalized sense face misunderstanding from the able bodied. This is one of those topics that lead to awkward interactions, which many would prefer to avoid. But avoiding these conversations prohibits the necessary dialogue to occur to help change any preconceived notions or negative views. Once, as a society, we understand that no one is less of a person due to their ability status, we can work to greater protect all rights.

The answer to this issue of voting accessibility may just lie within a change of societal view. It can be seen that act after act has been made into federal law trying to remedy this issue, but has limited success. The key would be stricter enforcement coming from the federal level and greater overall accountability. A law or Constitutional Amendment is only as strong as the enforcement it receives, otherwise it’s ink on paper. In order to see this accountability, first there needs to be greater understanding. Hopefully a greater understanding would then bring the desire from everyone to stand up for people with disabilities.

In America, the participation in one’s own government was a notion at the very foundation of its creation. As the country grows and evolved, more and more groups of its people tore down walls preventing their right to vote and demanding suffrage for an increasingly diverse electorate. But today, whether it be through intentional or unintentional means, Americans with disabilities have become an under represented group approaching battles when they face the voting booth. People with disabilities are no different than the able bodied people that stand in the next voting booth over. As a nation, more accountability needs to be put in place to ensure their suffrage.



[1] U.S. Constitution, Amendment XIII

[2] Kristen Bialik, 7 facts about Americans with disabilities (Pew Research Center, 2017)

[3] The Americans with Disabilities Act and Other Federal Laws Protecting the Rights of Voters with Disabilities (U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division Disability Rights Section, 2014)

[4] Lisa Schur and Douglas Kruse, Disability and Voter Turnout in the 2016 Election (Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, 2017)

[5]Lisa Schur and Douglas Kruse, Disability and Voter Turnout in the 2016 Election (Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, 2017)

[6] Kristen Bialik, 7 facts about Americans with disabilities (Pew Research Center, 2017)

[7] United States Government Accountability Office, Observations on Polling Place Accessibility and Related Federal Guidance (2017)

[8] Matt Vasilogambros, How Voters With Disabilities Are Blocked From the Ballot Box (The Pew Charitable Trusts, 2017)

[9] United States Government Accountability Office, Observations on Polling Place Accessibility and Related Federal Guidance (2017)

[10] Matt Vasilogambros, How Voters With Disabilities Are Blocked From the Ballot Box (The Pew Charitable Trusts, 2017)


Further Reading

National Network, What is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)? (Administration for Community Living, 2018)

Fong Chan, Hanoch Livneh, Steven R. Pruett, Chia-Chiang Wang, Lisa Zheng, Societal attitudes toward disability: Concepts, measurements, and interventions (Researchgate, 2009)

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