There are a lot of Americans who find the act of voting difficult because of learning disabilities and their obstacles are getting new attention as awareness of these disabilities increases.
CNN talked to Quinn Bradlee, who is a founder of the Our Time, Our Vote initiative at the National Center for Learning Disabilities. He’s also the author of the memoir, “A Different Life: Growing Up Learning Disabled and Other Adventures,” and “A Life’s Work: Fathers and Sons,” which he co-authored with his father, the late Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee.
Our converstion, conducted via email, is below.
CNN: What are some of the obstacles people with disabilities face in voting?
QB: That depends on your disability.
People with physical disabilities face different accessibility challenges based on their physical disability. Polling locations, the process of voting, all pose challenges.
Those of us with learning disabilities and attention issues face obstacles to voting that aren’t as apparent but still prevent us from exercising our rights to vote. Inaccessible ballots are a big thing. Those of us with dyslexia and other disabilities that impact our reading and processing find most ballots challenging with small, difficult to read text.
Many of us struggle with the attention needed to stand in long lines for hours, and navigate
the outdated and complex systems to secure an absentee ballot. Voting isn’t any easier after so many years of us doing it, and in many places voting is harder than ever for people with disabilities. That’s why it’s so important that Americans with LDs make a plan now!
CNN: How is the Covid pandemic affecting this issue?
QB: Covid has made the process more complicated, more uncertain, and more risky because states and the federal government have not worked together to create seamless solutions that center the needs of people with disabilities and other disenfranchised voting groups.
That’s why this year it’s more important than ever for people to make a voting plan. Decide how you will vote: in person, by mail, or perhaps early? When you will vote, and what support or accommodations you need to vote safely.
CNN: How many people does this affect?
QB: In 2016, there were 62.7 million eligible voters who either had a disability or lived in a household with someone who has a disability. We are a large and important voting bloc. In the voting booth, we all have the same power.
CNN: Are people with disabilities more or less likely to be Republican or Democrat? Are they more or less likely to vote than the general population?
QB: Voters with disabilities are representative of the entire voting population. Our voter turnout rate is a bit lower than non-disabled voters, that’s why we created Our Time Our Vote to offer a nonpartisan resource to voters with LDs.
CNN: There are a number of US laws — the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Voting Rights Act, among others — that require access to voting for people with disabilities. Do those laws not go far enough or are they not being properly applied?
QB: Both of these laws — the Voting Rights Act and the ADA — are essential laws to secure the right to vote for people with disabilities. The Voting Rights Act prohibits the use of literacy tests and other discriminatory barriers to voting and is essential to ensuring that people with disabilities are not discriminated against in their ability to register to vote.
And the ADA requires local governments to provide accommodations that will allow people with disabilities equal access to places of public accommodation, which includes voting.
However, while many polling places are physically accessible (think: parking spots, ramps, entrances, etc.), not all locations are accessible to people with invisible disabilities such as LD or ADHD. A huge challenge is the enforcement of the ADA including accommodations for individuals with learning disabilities. Our existing laws are not specific enough and also we need to build awareness about the many types of disabilities that exist and necessary accommodations during voting.
CNN: How did you become interested and active in this issue?
QB: When you are born with a disability it never goes away, but you learn more efficient ways of managing it the older you get. When I got to be a certain age, I saw people who were younger who may not have known how to manage their differences. I wanted to give them some learned knowledge the way a parent passes down their knowledge to help their child. I hope that passing down some learned knowledge about voting, and raising awareness of the issues our community faces, can help inform and empower others.
CNN: How was your group formed and what are you doing this year?
QB: In the voting booth we all have power.
Our Time Our Vote is an initiative that I helped launch with the National Center for Learning Disabilities. I’m the co-chair of the Champions for Disability Voters Council and we have tried to raise awareness about the voting challenges and experiences of voters with learning disabilities and attention issues. This year we have focused on voter education, voter engagement, and voter registration. Voters with disabilities have valuable voices that must be heard at the ballot box and organizations like NCLD try to break down the systemic barriers that limit voter participation and enfranchisement.
CNN: What have I not asked that I should have?
QB: One thing I’d like to mention is that using the term disability is an important marker of the legal protections we are guaranteed as people, in school, at work, and in the voting booth.
But for some, the term disability calls up the decades of stigma and discrimination that people with disabilities have faced. That’s why I view disabilities as differences, because people with differences can make a difference.