Nearly four weeks ago, Canadians elected a new Prime Minister. Citizens came out in droves to polling stations all across the country – so many, in fact, that at least one polling station in Alberta ran out of ballots. But what often went unmentioned, except by those who experienced it firsthand, is an inconsistent process for voters with disabilities or mobility challenges. For those with disabilities, who face discrimination and incomprehension on a regular basis, an overwhelming sentiment was felt that on October 19- a day when all Canadians were to be treated equally by casting their ballot – inequality still very much exists.
A Human Rights complaint was filed after a 2011 Federal election, after a voter who used a walker for mobility was forced to enter a polling station by going down a flight of stairs on his behind. A short time later, that same polling station was still in use, with the same barriers to access with walker or wheelchair. The Canadian government implemented changes for voters with disabilities, theoretically upholding the dignity of all Canadians. Four years later, progress had been made, but – as you will soon see – we still have a long way to go. Even though Elections Canada has made policies to accommodate voters with disabilities, many of these require advanced notice – whether it’s booking an ASL interpreter (if you are not able to bring one yourself) or having an Elections Canada volunteer come to your home so you can cast your ballot prior to Election Day. For Election day itself, independently accessing a voting booth is far from a simple or consistent process. From polling stations lacking clear signage for easy visibility, to inoperable or non-existent elevators, to volunteers not knowing about options for voters with visual impairments, it’s clear that voting is not as smooth for everyone as it could be.
I chose not to vote in this election, for a variety of personal and political reasons. But based on what several visually impaired friends have told me, the process was far from smooth or consistent. At best, one friend was guided from the front door, to filling out paperwork, to casting his ballot, and back out again. Some polling stations had large print lists of candidates with corresponding numbers, some had braille ones, some had neither. A template with braille numbers representing the candidates beside holes to mark your X could be used to hold a ballot, but there was nothing to hold the ballot in place – a potential for spoiling a ballot or voting for an unintended candidate. Many friends expressed concern over a lack of privacy, because an Elections Canada volunteer would have to place the ballot in the holder, then make sure the ballot didn’t slip. One friend of mine expressed shock that her ballot was taken from her and put in the ballot box on her behalf. Another was dismayed that she was grabbed and nearly dragged to the booth by an Elections Canada worker. Yet another had the misfortune of walking into the polling station and hearing (loudly) “Oh, here’s our first one!” and then having this same person direct all questions to her mother, who was there to cast her vote as well. Meagan even describes a completely bizarre requirement of having to write down the full name of the desired candidate – something that seemed unique to that polling station.
Voting is a right in this country. Perhaps because I chose not to vote, I have no right to describe or disparage the voting process. But the voters have spoken, and unfortunately, for many of the most misunderstood population, it was yet another way to be told that we aren’t quite equal, after all. I hope more steps can be taken in this country for equality for people with disabilities, whether it’s finding a job, raising a family, or voting in an election. But governments can only do so much; if attitudes don’t change, then I fear we’re just spitting into the wind.