There are currently least 36 million people with disabilities (more than 11 percent of the population) in the U.S. One-third of adults of working age (21-64 years old) are unemployed and 27 percent of working age adults with disabilities live below the poverty line, as Rebecca Schleifer, health and human rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, writes in the Huffington Post. It costs $15-$25 to get your birth certificate, fees that are more challenging for those more likely to live in poverty.
Schleifer cites a 2012 study showing that voter turnout for individuals with disabilities is 11 percent lower than for people without. For those with physical disabilities, simply getting to a polling place (due to not being able to drive and having to rely on others or public transportation) and getting into a polling place can be barriers. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) says that voting places must be accessible but a 2009 US Government Accountability Office study found that more than two-thirds were not fully accessible.
Should Charlie Vote When He’s Older?
Some states bar individuals with mental illness or intellectual disabilities like Charlie from voting based on their being “mentally incompetent.” But sometimes election officials or service providers have “improperly” screened out those they deemed incompetent, says Schleifer:
In Virginia, for example, election officials refused to provide absentee ballots for people in state psychiatric facilities because they read the state law to authorize such ballots only for people with physical disabilities. A 2008 study of Philadelphia nursing homes found that staff were denying residents the right to vote based on their own assessment of capacity to vote, notwithstanding that Pennsylvania law does not require that voters be deemed competent to cast a ballot.
My husband and I will be taking the legal steps required to place Charlie under our guardianship by the time he turns 18. But, while it’s likely Charlie will not be able to read a ballot — he tests low when his IQ is evaluated — he is far more intelligent and understands more than is apparent. He will rely on state and federal support including Medicaid as an adult and, to the extent that we can, I think it’s important to explain that something he does (voting) could affect his own life (the services and benefits he receives).
An organization called The ARC – “Association for Retarded Citizens” — often comes under fire because of the use of the word “retarded” in its name. The “r-word” is shunned now, but saying that someone like Charlie is mentally retarded was once considered progress; it certainly is over words like “feeble-minded” and “idiot.”
Concerns about causes, treatments and scientific research, while certainly important, are at the center of many organizations for those with disabilities. I think it’s significant that the word “citizens” is in the ARC’s name: Charlie is a citizen, with rights that need to be acknowledged. Rather than simply take away the right of those under guardianship to vote, should we not seek to figure out better how to protect that right?
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