There weren’t many venues where volunteers from Access could feasibly host its National Disability Voter Registration drive last week. The group, whose longer name is Advancing Community inClusion and Equality on the South Shore, ruled out several buildings for their lack of close proximity to public transportation, among other features that would make it difficult for some heads to participate. Braintree Town Hall, where Access wound up holding the regional meetup, itself only had fully friendly bathrooms finished a few years ago, while organizers had to make a special map for their event to keep people away from certain treacherous sidewalks.
I first met Crystal Evans, a leading Access advocate, at a media event at the magnificent Crane Public Library in Quincy two months back. She explained how sometimes, in order to traverse the thick construction gauntlet in the surrounding vicinity, people like her with limited mobility have no choice but to call the cops for rides. The injustice struck me as particularly tragic, not to mention inconvenient for all parties. Our conversation was still weighing on me weeks later; so when Evans reached out about her group’s new voting initiative, I began to see the issue of fair access to elections for people with disabilities, from those who may not be able to navigate a conventional voting booth to folks with impaired vision, as not only critical, but as a microcosm of an enduring Bay State hypocrisy.
“From grassroots organizations to the major political parties, they’re really not thinking about this,” Evans said. She’s moving between tables in the Braintree auditorium, greeting allies of her group who have brought information to distribute at this local launch of the REV-UP campaign, which is designed as a national “effort to get more people with disabilities registered to vote, educate voters about issues and candidates, promote turnout of voters with disabilities across the country, engage candidates and the media on disability issues, and protect eligible voters’ right to participate in elections.”
Hoping to lure more of the tens of millions of people with disabilities who are eligible to vote to the polls—plus their friends and family members—Access has linked with the Boston Center for Independent Living, a stalwart in this tough arena since the 1970s, plus a range of other groups, including the National Disability Rights Network, the National League of Women Voters, Paralyzed Veterans of America, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“We’re doing this because we’re finding access problems—businesses, infrastructure, day-to-day things like sidewalks without curb cuts,” said Laura Sabadini of Weymouth, who directs civic engagement for Access. “We started Access in January after we had had enough. … They treat you like you are the only one, but then you see that there are others. We’ve been on our own, so now we’re trying to work together.”
“We’re being left out of so many conversations,” Evans added.
Sadly, there are few more tortured cliches in these throes than that which notes how Mass is hardly the progressive graceland it is often heralded as being. Nevertheless, it’s a perspective worth considering in regard to the frequently forgotten realm of disability access.
Though anecdotes and testimonials speak louder than statistics ever could on this avoided topic, there are plenty of numbers available that can help frame the discussion. Among all the compelling research is a 2015 disability inclusion study by United Cerebral Palsy, in which Massachusetts ranked 14th among the states in fulfilling the “duty and necessity of a civil society … to aid and empower these individuals, who are often the most vulnerable among us, to succeed.” Looking at specific categories, that relative classification falls from mediocre to ogre, with the Commonwealth placing 34th in “reaching those in need,” 23rd in “promoting productivity,” and 40th in “keeping families together.”
At the risk of oversimplifying or conflating topics for the sake of adding drama to a situation that’s already quite dramatic for the people who are impacted directly, I have to wonder out loud if the Commonwealth’s left-wingers, from Back Bay to the Berkshires on to Barnstable, who are deeply concerned about families that are separated at the southern border also care about families that are shattered on this front, or about those among us who have trouble accessing resources in their own municipalities.
Fortunately that’s where Access enters the equation. Its goal: to “increase the political power of the disability community by getting more people with disabilities registered and committed to vote on election day while simultaneously engaging candidates for public office and the media on disability issues.” For example, the looming statewide ballot question on nurse staffing ratios is of major importance this group, as many spend a lot of time in hospitals, their lives in the balance.
All of the above reasons combined spurred Evans into action. On the voting front, she says the process was much easier back when she lived in Somerville. There, Evans said, there were services available to help her and others in similar positions get to polls. But commuting got more difficult when she moved down the Red Line and away from regimented street grids more common in Boston, Somerville, and Cambridge. Crystal’s only been able to find a lone van at one taxicab service—in neighboring Quincy—that can accommodate her chair (and zero in Braintree), a problem compounded by the construction and blocked sidewalks around Wollaston Station and the Quincy Center transit hub. And the twisted figure-six that strangles Quincy’s downtown shopping district is a notorious boondoggle.
“In general, [accessibility] is a problem,” Evans said. “So on Election Day, how do you get back and forth? A lot of voting places on the South Shore have issues—at one place I’ve been, there are poles down the sidewalk [that would impede any walker or wheelchair].”
These aren’t always blatant, malicious violations. Or problems that are necessarily covered by statute or law. At last week’s forum, Braintree Town Clerk James Casey showed attendees some of the small but demonstrative improvements officials have made in that town—including the purchase of new wheelchair-friendly booths, as well as their proactive use of an AutoMark machine, which gives voters with disabilities like blindness the ability to vote independently.
Crystal said that she is not a fan of demonstrating problems that she faces daily for the sake of entertainment, a practice she disparagingly calls “disability simulation.” With so much on the line, though, her group’s prioritizing external communications, which is what compelled Crystal to attend the media event where we first met. As far as she’s concerned, it is imperative for all the organizing Access has done thus far to accrue and then accelerate with a primary (Sept 4) and then an election (Nov 6) coming up this year.
In Braintree, Marlene Sallo, executive director of the Disability Law Center, said, “These are issues nobody realizes are as serious as they are.” That’s clear. But in some respects, simple solutions aren’t always difficult to come by.
“Some of this is just providing education about absentee ballots,” Evans said. “A lot of people don’t even know that’s an option. We’re here to show them what is possible.”