As Americans, there are certain freedoms that empower us and grant us the ability to directly impact change. Our freedom of speech and our right to assemble are big ones. So too is our rarely-touted ability to access information freely.
But one element of our freedom outweighs the others combined in sheer importance, directly affecting every other right we have: our right to vote. And sadly, not all Americans have equal rights or abilities to do so.
An upsetting study conducted by the U.S. Government Accountability Office in 2017 found that out of polling stations surveyed in 21 counties across 12 states, 60 percent had at least one outdoors barrier to accessibility that could prevent people with disabilities from voting.
And now, a new report conducted by the activism group Disability Rights Arkansas reveals that their state has many of these same issues, with nearly half of the polling stations they examined presenting barriers that could prevent people with disabilities from having access to this most fundamental American right.
For their study, Disability Rights Arkansas visited and reviewed 1,110 facilities — 90 percent of the polling stations in the State of Arkansas — looking for exterior issues that might hinder access for a person with disabilities. And unfortunately, they found that a staggering 49 percent of the polling stations they examined presented at least one barrier for people with disabilities.
The vast majority of barriers they found related to accessible parking with proper signage, but the issues they found were widespread and numerous, including limited pathways, a lack of curb cuts, a lack of ramps, poor signage, and restricted access to doors and other entrances.
The study found a disheartening number of serious accessibility issues at some locations. One photo taken by the group depicts a grassy, uneven parking space with a sign stuck to a wall. Another photo shows a narrow, steep ramp with a sharp curve that would be extremely difficult and dangerous to traverse. Other images show tall ramps, high doorway thresholds, grating on walkways, and other serious accessibility barriers.
Many of these issues would fail to meet the standards defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). But according to Disability Rights Arkansas, a large volume of polling stations in the state are in churches, which are exempt from ADA requirements.
Of the 1,110 polling places included in the group’s study, 460 were churches or other property owned by religious organizations.
Disability Rights Arkansas admits the scope of their study was limited to only the exteriors of the properties they surveyed. Many polling places are on private property, so their access for examining the facilities thoroughly was limited. It’s possible that many of these polling places — particularly those in buildings with exterior ADA compliance issues — may present even more mobility issues than the others do.
Disability Rights Arkansas is urging Arkansas Secretary of State Mark Martin and the state Board of Election Commissioners to hurriedly solve these issues ahead of the midterm Elections in November.
The GAO study from 2017 only examined a small cross sampling of counties and States, and found problems in a majority of the polling stations they looked at. The Disability Rights Arkansas was able to investigate most of the State’s polling stations, and found widespread issues as well. And this all begs the question: just how prohibitive are these sorts of accessibility issues on a national level?
People with disabilities are disenfranchised with limited representation in the United States government, and voting is inarguably the primary means of affecting change. But accessibility barriers can hinder or even outright prohibit people with disabilities from making use of this fundamental Constitutional right.
Local and State governments, as well as the Federal government, need to take voting rights seriously, and for people with disabilities, this needs to start with accessibility and ADA enforcement at polling places.