Incapacity should not restrict entry to my basic proper to vote

Dr. Eric Peebles

I believe that voting is the most sacred of all civic duties. Since I suffer from spastic cerebral palsy, a disorder that affects coordination and motor control, I need help filling out the ballot papers. But I am determined to exercise my basic right to vote in person whenever I can.

This has been a lifelong endeavor. In the mid-1980s my local public school tried to exclude me from attending because of my disability and being in a wheelchair. School officials even said I was a danger to other students because of my power wheelchair. My mother refused to accept this discrimination and stood up for local leaders on my behalf.

After two years of legal practice, my school district was placed under federal supervision and I was allowed to attend a public school.

I got registered after I turned 18 and since then I’ve tried to vote on every election.

I have long accepted the words of one of the fathers of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Justin Dart, who once said to a meeting I was attending, “Get in Empowerment. Go into politics as if your life depended on it. It does.”

My condition is at high risk of developing COVID-19 and suffering serious complications, including death. As the 2020 elections approached, I felt compelled to safely protect my right to vote.

The Southern Poverty Law Center and others have filed lawsuits against officials in Alabama on behalf of several disabled voters like myself to repeal the requirement that we break social distancing and risk our lives to vote by a notary or two adult witnesses a postal vote.

A federal district court agreed with our arguments and overturned the challenged requirements – I immediately voted in favor of postal voting. It was a good thing I didn’t hesitate because the 11th District Court of Appeals overturned that order.

This year, however, state lawmakers are making it harder, not easier, to cast a vote – and may be depriving tens of millions of voters with disabilities of all races, ethnicities, genders, and political backgrounds.

While due attention has been given to the increasingly aggressive manner in which these lawmakers seek to remove the voting rights from millions of black and other colored voters, the community with disabilities is also being quietly harmed.

Across the country, Conservative lawmakers have tabled nearly 400 bills containing provisions that restrict access to voting in 48 states – including proposals to restrict postal voting and early voting.

The Election Support Commission recently reported that around 75 percent of voters with disabilities in 2020 either voted by postal vote or in person early on.

It does so despite the backlash received by Georgia lawmakers following the passing of SB 202, which restricted run-off voting, drop boxes for ballot collection, and even prevented people from distributing water to queues. These laws will have serious consequences for voters with disabilities.

Here in Alabama, Governor Kay Ivey recently signed divisive law formally banning roadside voting in the state and placing unnecessary barriers on voters with disabilities, elderly Americans, and others.

Officials justified the law with lies, falsehoods and misunderstandings in the election. The roadside poll is routinely readily available to voters in Mississippi and Texas, and voters’ ballots are protected, secure, and counted.

Vengeful bills like this do not offer any discernible benefit to the security of our elections, but they do affect the accessibility of the elections to the people in my community.

Voting with a disability is already profoundly difficult. It’s no secret that polling stations across the country, including Alabama, do not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Alabama is not providing voters with the option to vote in person early and is forcing voters to make excuses for voting by post. And on the only day most voters have to vote, voters with disabilities feel in the dark about whether they can even enter the polling station.

Of course, some states cannot be trusted to protect disabled voters, and some lawmakers do not care to create more accessibility issues, so the task of protecting disabled voters falls on our federal government.

Congress could redress these injustices through the For the People Act, a comprehensive and inclusive bill to improve democracy; it was passed in the House of Representatives.

These include the Disability Voting Act, an important law that would improve protection for voters with disabilities and help remove existing barriers to participation in elections such as inaccessible registration procedures, polling stations and voting machines.

The problem is that many US Senators, including minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) As well as Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) And Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.), Have made it clear that they are ready to stand up use scorched earth tactics to keep the measures from becoming law. You stopped the bill from even being debated this week. If they are successful, my community pays a disproportionate price.

From the mid-20th century until today, people with disabilities and our supporters have made great strides in securing civil rights for our community. The mere recognition of rights is not enough. Few aspects of American life are as important as the right to vote. Voters shouldn’t have to risk their lives or overcome unnecessary obstacles to do so.

Dr. Eric Peebles has served as the Executive Director of Accessible Alabama since the organization was founded in 2013. He is also the advocacy chair for the Alabama State Independent Living Council. Peebles is a former Associate Professor of Rehabilitation and Disability Studies at Auburn University.

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