American Citizenship

Yesterday I went to my local polling place and voted. For the first time since 1996, I was unfettered by either pragmatic or attitudinal barriers. It may seem like such a small thing, but it is anything but.

In 1996, I realized my new status as a totally blind person meant I would have problems voting independently, so I began researching what accommodations would be provided. None. I had to fill out my ballot by instructing another on how to complete it. Offending my every sensibility, I refused because I possess a strong belief that how I vote should be between me, myself, and I only shared with those of my choosing at the time of my choosing.

Lawyers were necessary to force implementation of a simple method by which I was easily able to vote. It was also the last time in ten years that it would be possible to have a good experience.

When I moved to California, I researched my options and again found I was denied a secret ballot because of my disability. Like in Massachusetts, I contacted all the right people, but by then laws had clarified my “rights” and a secret ballot was not one of them.

It took the Help Americans Vote Act of 2002 and its requirement that machines be accessible as of January 1, 2007 for me to walk into my polling place and vote privately. Between 1996 and 2007, I remember voting exactly once in the 2004 presidential election. Since 2007, I have voted in all general elections and many primaries.

It may seem like a small thing to have a secret ballot, but anyone with a knowledge of constitutional history is aware that our founding fathers expressly wanted those who voted to do so unfettered by pressure which meant a secret ballot. Unfortunately, it took until 1920 for women to even get the right to vote, 1965 for us to address the issue surrounding blacks voting, and 2007 for disabled people to be able to do it with the same sense of freedom white men have enjoyed for over two hundred and twenty-five years. Collectively America should be ashamed of itself.

As we all know, laws only do part of the job and my voting experiences since 2007 reflect this. My polling place was staffed with the same set of elderly people for about three years. It often took more than two people twenty minutes to set up the machine. After a couple of visits, I was recognized upon sight and if I had missed an election, it elicited comments. This did not give me a sense of privacy. Exercising my right to vote meant excessive waiting, being clucked over by pitying people, and having my voting habits noted.

Yesterday, I had to force myself to walk the several hundred yards to vote. Guess what? There was a staffing change! Nobody acted like they knew me and the machine was ready in under ten minutes accomplished by only one person. It was amazing. For the first time since 1996, I felt good about voting. I had the extremely rare emotion of pride in being an American.

Seriously, why does being a Disabled American mean I feel alienated about 95% of the time? The simple act of voting like everyone else should not be a struggle. Being disabled should not be such a fight. Yet in the United States, especially in these economic times, we collectively live on the edge with unemployment rates that are six times the national average, benefits that are being cut, and the laws designed to force our right to access ignored by the very government that penned them. I know having food on the table of every American comes before my ability to vote comfortably, but neither issue is being addressed instead the debate is over whether or not to increase taxes on the wealthiest 1% of our population.

Can we declare a temporary time out while everyone evaluates their bad behavior and figures out how to do better? It works on four-year-olds.

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About Jen

After acquiring a degree from Vassar College in psychology, I moved to Western Mass where I ran a peer mentoring network for disabled college students as well as activism and organizing around disability issues. I also conducted research on disabled women’s body image. An Upstate New York native, I eventually followed my heliotropic nature to the sun of Southern California. I divide my time between writing (disability fiction and essays) along with moderating San Diego Bisexual Forum which is one of the oldest groups of its kind in the country. In my off hours I can often be found in my neighborhood live music venue enjoying our local talent.

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