Voters with disabilities flex political muscle at the Virginia Capitol: 'Voting is our superpower'

'We still have a ways to go if we want to obtain full inclusion for people with disabilities'
Posted at 4:08 PM, Oct 05, 2023
and last updated 2023-10-05 17:40:54-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- With early voting underway in Virginia, a nonpartisan coalition of groups gathered at the State Capitol Wednesday to deliver a message to hopeful legislators -- their vote matters.

"The disability vote counts and we won't be ignored," Sharika Lampkin-Briscoe, with Vocal Virginia, said.

Sharika Lampkin-Briscoe
Sharika Lampkin-Briscoe

Lampkin-Briscoe is one of the dozens of people who rallied on behalf of Virginians with a disability.

A population the group said made up 25 percent of Virginia voters.

"As the 1.4 million constituents that we are -- voting is our superpower allowing our voices to be heard," Lampkin-Briscoe said.

Rally organizer REV UP Virginia, a disability advocacy group, said a study found the 2022 mid-term elections marked the first time that disabled and non-disabled Virginians voted at the same rate.

They said it was reflective of making voting access easier, a situation they don't want to be rolled back.

"The 40-day window for early voting. There's always been curbside voting, but still curbside voting. Drop off, right? You know, like, just dropping your ballot in the drop-off mailbox," Helena Berger, co-founder of REV UP Virginia, said about the access that made voting easier for Virginians. "Choice matters, especially for people with disabilities, just depending on your disability."

Scott Graphics Voting.png

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Still, advocates said there was still room for improvement.

They pointed to a survey done by the disAbility Law Center of Virginia (dLCV) that looked at 500 polling sites around the state during last year's election. It said around "20% of the sites did not have appropriate curbside voting signs, 13% did not have an accessible pathway to the door, and 21% did not have an accessible door that could be opened with a closed fist."

"There are still challenges in terms of training of poll workers so that they are respectful and not obtrusive in terms of their engagement with people with disabilities," Susan Lydick, co-founder of REV UP Virginia, added.

Helena Berger and Susan Lydick, co-founders of REV UP Virginia.
Helena Berger and Susan Lydick, co-founders of REV UP Virginia.

Alice Tousignant said she experienced what Lydick described when voting early in this year's primary at the Richmond Office of Elections.

Legally blind since birth, Tousignant said a system change she was unaware led to her having to use an electronic system that wasn't formatted in a way that she could read (she said that she requires a black background with white text).

Tousignant said her husband tried to help her at the booth, but a poll worker said he could not. She said it took several attempts to convince the worker she had a problem before he would help her.

"My husband kept saying to him, 'She really is visually impaired, she cannot see.' So, he finally did help me, but sort of reluctantly and was not very happy about it," said Tousignant, who is also a board member with the League of Women Voters. "The man obviously couldn't understand, you know, what was wrong with me, appearance is that I have no visible disability and it wasn't until my husband kept saying 'She really can't see, you know. She's legally blind.' Then he was like, 'Well, okay.' And, you know, he was like, 'Uh.' And so, it was not it was not a good interaction."

Richmond registrar Keith Balmer said that the machines used for voting have the capability to meet the needs of people with disabilities and specifically, Tousignant's requirement.

He said poll workers are required by law to be trained to help voters with disabilities and added his office has created an additional online training beyond what the state provides.

He said this is the first he is hearing of Tousignant's case and encourages anyone with similar issues to reach out to polling officers or registrars.

"What I would hope for in the future, any voters who are having issues to speak to the chief of their polling location. If it's here at the Office of Election during early voting to speak to me," said Balmer. "We want to make sure that voters are able to come in and cast their ballots."

Back at the Bell Tower, advocates said their focus goes beyond poll access but also the policies put in place by those running for office.

"We still have a ways to go if we want to obtain full inclusion for people with disabilities," Bonnie O'Day, with the National Federation of the Blind, said.

Berger said they're fighting for improvements in areas like education, transportation, and affordable housing.

"All these issues are really important to people with disabilities, again, to ensure that they're fully participating members of society," Berger said.

All 140 seats of the Virginia General Assembly are up for grabs this election season.

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