SPECIAL COVERAGE: An issue of access

Voting can challenge those with disabilities;
resources, support help bridge the gap

By Kit Waggoner
Special to the Southeast Express

For some disabled voters it can be impossible to go to polling places, to understand the legalese used for ballot measures or even to fill out their ballots without assistance.

According to a 2016 Pew Research Center study, people who self-identify as having at least one disability are more likely to have an interest in politics than the general population, but they also have a slightly below-average voter turnout.

During the September meeting of Autism & Aspergers Connections, a local nonprofit group that provides support and community for families and those on the autism spectrum, the conversation quickly turned to voting. In the interest of disclosure, the author of this article hosts the support group.

“The problem isn’t voting itself,” group member and local writer Jene Clyde said. “The problem is that even when we do vote, no one prioritizes our needs. No one thinks about us or listens to us, even when they make laws that impact us.”

“The wording on those ballots [is] just too confusing. When I have to do it by myself I get overwhelmed.” — Colorado Springs voter Heather Markey

Yolanda Avila

Voice of experience

Colorado Springs City Councilor Yolanda Avila, who represents Southeast’s 4th District, has a different perspective. Avila was diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease that leads to blindness, and that played a central role how she started her political career.

In 2011, she began to attend City Council meetings to push for expanded bus service. She was approached by The Independence Center — a Colorado Springs nonprofit that provides traditional and self-directed home health care, independent living, veterans services and advocacy for services for those with disabilities — to aid in the center’s advocacy efforts. Later, she ran for City Council, winning her seat in 2017.

Avila is passionate about local government, telling a group of Pikes Peak Community College students attending a forum on voting, “Cities will change the world.”

For her, those changes seem intrinsically tied to how cities can become more accessible for people with disabilities. According to her profile on the Colorado Springs city government page:

“Avila … championed several causes in District 4 by improving transit accessibility, fixed bus routes and frequency. She was dismayed with the lack of infrastructure construction in roads, sidewalks and bridges. Now, an unprecedented amount of this infrastructure has been completed along with ADA ramp construction; and she is thrilled that designs will commence on the Airport/Circle and I-25 bridges.”

While transportation issues lead Avila to becoming involved in local government, transportation isn’t the biggest issue for many of our city’s disabled citizens.

Managing the obstacles

Back at the Autism & Aspergers Connections meeting, members discussed how they navigate the sometimes-rough waters of the election process.

“Colorado’s mail-in ballots make it easier,” Victoria Lange said when asked about transportation and voting. “My mom and I can fill it out together at the kitchen table. We basically have the same beliefs anyway.”

“That’s what I do,” Christine Hawkins, another member of the group, agreed. “My mom explains it all to me.”

“To be honest, I just look at my grandmother’s ballot and vote the exact opposite,” Heather Markey said. “The wording on those ballots [is] just too confusing. When I have to do it by myself I get overwhelmed.”

Lange nodded and added, “Legalese on ballots should be banned.”

Legalese, or the technical language used on legal documents, is infamous for being difficult to understand. In 2017 Ballotpedia.org, an organization dedicated to explaining ballot language in a more approachable way, analyzed 27 measures across nine states and found that, on average, readers needed 20 years of schooling to understand the language used on ballots.

Colorado government helps mitigate this by sending every household with a registered voter a booklet called the “Ballot Information Booklet” (also known as the “Blue Book”), which explains the measures on the ballot in plain speak. The booklet also details the arguments for and against the measures and explains in simple English what a yes or no vote means. A PDF of the booklet can be found online at leg.colorado.gov.

A helping hand

What about those who don’t have a caregiver to explain it to them, or who have a disability that makes it impossible to read the ballot and accompanying “Blue Book?” The El Paso County Clerk and Recorder’s Office partnered with The Independence Center to make voting more accessible for people with disabilities.

The center has a page on its website dedicated to making the process easier. The webpage is broken down into several headings only containing one or two short sentences at a time, with links, resources and videos — with ASL interpretation — explaining different aspects of the voting process.

Additionally, The Independence Center runs a highly accessible voting center during elections, and every polling place in El Paso County has an accessible machine designed to make the process possible for all voters.


Resources available

The following are some of the resources available for voters with disabilities or who are struggling with mental health or cognitive challenges:



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