MOUNT VERNON — People with disabilities have equal rights under both state and federal law. These laws allow people with disabilities to have complete access to the voting process. There are local efforts under way to make sure people with disabilities know and exercise their right to vote.
For example, People First of Knox County has received a grant through the Ohio Secretary of State’s Office. The grant, called Project Vote, provides salaries to people with disabilities to train other people with disabilities in the election process.
“Everything is put into People First language,” said Sadie Hunter, executive director, People First of Ohio. “The self-advocates teach their peers how to register to vote. They talk about what are the requirements? What are the barriers to voting?”
Nancy Gregg teaches the Transition Mission unit for the Knox County Educational Service Center. Her students with multiple disabilities are over the age of 18 and are therefore eligible to vote.
“The right to vote is such a privilege, such a gift,” Gregg said. “Our nation has created an environment where it is nurtured and we have to protect the process. It is important.”
In the past, the class has visited the county headquarters of both the Democratic and Republican parties, and the students are instructed in how to register to vote and how to use the voting machines. The class uses the Mount Vernon News Newspaper in Education pages for information about elections and issues.
“We go through the information,” said Gregg. “We try to be very unbiased as we review the issues and the candidates. We try to modify the wording into user-friendly so that the students can understand the language. We are very cautious not to influence them toward one side or the other.”
Because some people believe the students are unable to understand the issues and might be influenced by family members, Gregg said some individuals have objected to the students being “trained” to vote.
“It’s no different in any other family,” Gregg said. “If you grow up in a staunch Republican family, and all your grandparents were Republican and the whole family is associated with the Republican party, then it is highly like that as a young student, as an 18-, 19-, 20- year-old that’s still living at home, you will most likely lean toward some of the family views and values, and the views and values of your church and neighborhood. I think that’s true of all of us.”
Although her students may need help understanding ballot language, Gregg said they are able to make informed decisions.
“Given user-friendly information that is relative to their family’s lifestyle and community situation, because each family is going to have a different view on politics and money and taxes,” Gregg said, “the students are able to formulate thoughts and ideas that lead toward a conclusive decision about how it is going to affect their lives, their community, their school, their grandparents.”
The same accommodations made for people with learning difficulties are also available to senior citizens, and Gregg thinks it is important for senior citizens to maintain their ability to vote and maintain access to information. “We have to be just as cognizant of protecting that right for our elders,” she said, “and for them to be able to get to the polls.”
Kim Horn, director, Knox County Board of Elections, said accommodations, besides things like wheelchair accessibility, include assistance in the voting booth. Any young voter, voter with a disability or elderly voter is allowed to request a family member to be there as an interpreter or someone who can modify the language for them.
“Each polling location,” she said, “also has an ADA compliant machine which allows them to listen to the ballot. The poll workers can get that set up for them. If they bring somebody with them, that person can read the ballot to them, as long as the poll worker doesn’t see that they are actually telling them how to vote. You can even have someone help you press the button, if you chose. If they are unable to come into the polling location, a Democrat and a Republican can take a ballot out to them as a curb-side ballot. They can sit in their car and vote.”
“I think the level of professional respect, responsibility and trust is real high in Knox County,” said Gregg. “The people working at the polls take it very seriously when they have been asked to help.”