People Need to See Us Voting
October 21, 2018 | Beth Finke
I lost my sight in 1986 to a rare condition called retinopathy. By then I’d already voted twice, in national elections, as a fully-sighted person.
Struggling to adjust to blindness, I was determined not to lose my ability to vote – not just casting a ballot, but the act of voting itself.
People who are blind are guaranteed the right to vote by law. The National Voter Registration Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Help America Vote Act, and the federal Rehabilitation Act.
Friends who are blind suggested I vote absentee, but for me, there’s no substitute for the feel of a voting device in your hand, the sound of your vote actually registering.
My first blind vote was in 1988, when we still voted using a punch card. My husband Mike joined me in the booth, selected the candidates for me, and placed my hand on top of the stylus so I could physically punch the ballot on my own.
In a subsequent election Mike was away on business. I made it to the polls myself, but quickly discovered how much assistance I’d need without him. Two judges – one Democrat, one Republican – crowded with me and my Seeing Eye dog into the tiny polling booth. I didn’t bother asking them to put my hand on the stylus so I could punch the card myself, just allowed a third-party to vote for me with a second third-party to witness. Yes, I cast a ballot, but it sure wasn’t private. Everyone in the room heard exactly who I was voting for.
News of new text-to-speech software spread quickly through the blind community in the mid-2000s. The software translates the candidate selections on the ballot into spoken choices; a special keypad enables voters who are blind to choose our candidates by touch, with the selections confirmed by voice again before the ballot is cast. We could finally vote independently — and privately.
I live in Chicago, and the city sponsored free trainings at Chicago public libraries. I spent many hours at our local branch getting a feel for the machines and practicing with the buttons on the handheld device. When I arrived at the polling station in 2008 the technology was in place. Only problem? No one could operate it. There’d been no training of staff in the sequences needed – enabling the software, activating the audio, even finding the headphones that ensure privacy of selection. So backwards in time we went. Once again my husband Mike had to sign an affidavit, accompany me to the booth, read the candidates’ names out loud, and hear my choices in response, as did everyone else within earshot. The same scenario repeated in 2012 during the national elections.
Next month we again have a national election of great import, and again, my hopes are raised that I’ll be able to exercise the same basic right that sighted people do – to vote in private without public assistance. Millions of Americans with disabilities share this ambition. People need to see us out there voting. We can’t let others forget about us. In the not-too-distant past people with disabilities did stay home, not just on voting day, but perpetually. We can never go back to those days, and voting publicly is one way to ensure we don’t.
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Beth Finke teaches memoir-writing classes in Chicago and is developing a short online course to help others lead memoir-writing classes using her methods. A recipient of a Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, Beth’s latest book, “Writing Out Loud: What a Blind Teacher Learned from Leading a Memoir Class for Seniors” chronicles the challenges and rewards of her decade-long adventure helping older adults write their stories.