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Barriers for voters with vision and hearing loss

What stands in the way of an easy experience for millions of voters
Posted at 5:50 PM, Oct 22, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-22 17:50:49-04

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich.  — Roughly 32-million American adults experience loss of vision and another 48-million experience loss of hearing. It’s a massive part of the American electorate that oftentimes gets overlooked at the polls.

“There’s a lot of information that’s received that is confusing and conflicting,” said Rowan O’Dougherty, Board President of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services in Grand Rapids.

With the enacting of no-reason absentee voting, O’Dougherty says voting has gotten easier, but casting a ballot in-person still comes with barriers. Confusion over who is supposed to hire translators, who pays for them, who to call for one and issues with communication now that poll workers will be required to wear masks make communication tough.

“It’d be a great idea for the government agencies to hire deaf people to help with that process and develop a process to inform the community,” said O’Dougherty. “We need someone within the community itself to be able to help with that process.”

O’Dougherty recommends poll workers try to get a hold of communicator masks – clear masks that allow deaf and hard of hearing voters to read lips.

“They need to understand that it needs to be completely visual, to not depend on the noise,” said O’Dougherty. “Write to us on paper back-and-forth, because it’s an overwhelming time.”

The blind community runs into similar barriers with communication, says Charis Austin with the local Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Voting machines that are unfamiliar and tough to use – not to mention poll workers who may not be familiar with the systems – make in-person voting difficult.

“You may not always remember how to use it, sometimes the machine doesn’t always work as well as you’d like it to,” said Austin. “If you can’t understand what it’s saying then there’s a problem. If you can’t remember what the buttons do, it gets frustrating.”

Charis says there are ways for blind and visually impaired voters to print out accessible ballots, but they’d need access to a printer and there are still concerns over privacy. Even at precincts, privacy is oftentimes an issue, Charis says, with the accessible voting machines placed at each precinct.

“The machine might be set in the middle of the room and anybody that’s walking in can see you vote,” she said. “That’s something that is not appreciated by anyone.”

For more voting resources for people who are deaf and hard of hearing, click here.

For more voting resources for those who are blind and visually impaired, and to download an accessible ballot, click here or here.