With the 2020 general election inching closer to being in the history books, a record number of Americans cast their votes this year. That’s quite an accomplishment, especially with such considerations as when, where and how to vote, social distancing, if votes will be counted and more.
But that’s nothing new to the more than 20 percent of Americans with disabilities who must contend with these kinds of dilemmas in every election.
Johns Hopkins University senior Sabrina Epstein said she was pleased to cast her ballot by mail this election season.
Epstein is a public health major who is active with the Maryland Democrats Voter Protection Committee and a student researcher and intern for the Johns Hopkins Disability Health Research Center. She said she was encouraged to see the long lines for early voting. But like many others with physical disabilities, she said that waiting in blocks-long lines to vote just was not feasible for her.
A native of San Antonio, Tex., Epstein, 21, has been involved with disability rights advocacy since high school. She said people with disabilities face many challenges when it comes to voting in Maryland.
“Voting by mail is very helpful for many people with disabilities, but it’s not the solution for everyone,” she said. “People with physical disabilities have trouble with inaccessible sites and standing in long lines. In Maryland, poll workers are not required to prioritize people with disability in lines, though some poll workers do.”
Epstein said deaf voters face a shortage of American Sign Language interpreters, while blind and low vision voters have a couple of options for voting.
“They can go to a poll place and use ballot marking machines with audio or a newer option. They can have their ballot digitally delivered and fill it out using screen reader [technology], print it out and mail it in,” she said.
Though all polling sites are required to be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, “we know from experience that’s not always the case,” said Epstein. In fact, she said that recent data from a study at Rutgers University found that “one of three disabled voters encounter problems at the polls.”
Epstein said people with disabilities are a diverse voting bloc, but this voting season many are especially concerned about maintaining their health care benefits.
“The Affordable Health Care Act has really expanded health care for people with disabilities. We need to move forward with that, not to roll it back,” she said.
Education policy is another concern for voters in the disability community, said Epstein.
“Certainly, we need to be funding our education system,” she said. “With COVID-19, there are a lot of concerns on a national level about schools trying to reopen and not considering or prioritizing students with disabilities who may have unique needs or maybe are at greater risk for COVID in some cases. We need to work to nominate people who care about students with disabilities, more than the current administration does.”
On a local level, Epstein said she would like to see Maryland adopt a policy of prioritizing physically disabled voters who cannot manage long lines at the polls. In addition, she said she hopes Maryland will start offering curbside voting, which is an option available in some states. Alabama used to offer this option, but recently that state’s Supreme Court banned the practice, something Epstein feels is a means of voter suppression.
To combat obstacles to voting, Epstein urged people who generally experience difficulties or those who notice that poll places are inaccessible to report them to voter protection organizations such as the Maryland Democrats Voter Protection Committee, the ACLU and Disability Rights Maryland.
In addition, she said those who would like to help people with disabilities can offer to drive them to the polls. Epstein noted that the Uber and Lyft rideshare companies offered discounted ride assistance on Election Day.
Epstein, who graduates from college in May, said she plans to pursue a career in disability advocacy.
“I come from a strong Jewish and advocacy background,” she said. “My mother works for the Jewish federation in San Antonio. I’m grateful for that. It really all comes back to tikkun olam [repairing the world].”