Citizenship is the chance to make a difference to the place where you belong – Charles Handy
There’s no such thing as second class citizenship. That’s like telling me you can be a little bit pregnant – H. Rap Brown
Suffrage is a common right of citizenship – Victoria Woodhull
My vote is my voice ... and the voice of all who struggled so that I may have my voice – Lyida C. Obasi
As many Americans grumble about our choices this November, we tend to forget that we take for granted that we have any choice at all.
We do not have to look too far in our national past to find the time when the only true citizens were white, land-owning men. Over the centuries, Americans dedicated (and sometimes lost) their lives to win Jews, women, blacks, Native Americans and people of Asian heritage the right to vote. Not until the Voting Rights Act of 1964 was there formal, nationwide prohibition on discrimination in voting.
Today, there are still fears and concerns about fraud and discrimination at the polls, but most of us assume that any non-felon citizen over the age of 18 has the right to vote.
According to a September report on National Public Radio, tens of thousands of people with disabilities have been denied their voting rights through their state’s guardianship laws. In some states, people who have court-appointed guardians must petition the court for their voting rights. And the courts can say “no.” In California alone, more than 30,000 citizens are in this situation. Other states use outdated constitutional language to deny the right to vote.
Thanks to federal legislation, including the VRA and the Americans with Disabilities Act, local and state governments are required to provide access to polling places and voting opportunities to all people with disabilities. This has increased the physical accessibility of polls and allowed people with vision and communication impairments to request accommodations.
For individuals with disabilities that impair cognition, judgment or processing (such as people with brain injuries, mental illness or intellectual disabilities), the VRA, ADA and other laws have been slow to offer as much protection.
The excuses often given are twofold. One, that people with cognitive impairments may be subject to undue influence by caregivers, in essence giving caregivers multiple votes through the proxy of a person with a disability. The second is that people with cognitive impairments may not understand the implications of voting.
Both of these assumptions are degrading and wrong. It is the responsibility of each and every one of us to be informed, active citizens. People with disabilities are as impacted by the policies of our nations and local governments as any other citizen. With no vote, there is no voice to impact those policies.
America, you’re 240 years old. It’s time that “all citizens” meant just that.
(The Colorado Constitution contains no disability-related restrictions on voting. Way to go, Colorado!)
Tara Kiene is president/CEO of Community Connections Inc.