Manitoba

Voting more accessible this federal election, but some feel more needs to be done

Marking a ballot may seem simple enough to most voters, but people living with disabilities continue to face challenges when it comes time to cast a vote.

Making all polling stations wheelchair accessible, supplying additional devices could help, advocates say

Not all Elections Canada polling stations are accessible by wheelchair. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Marking a ballot may seem simple enough to most voters, but people living with disabilities continue to face challenges when it comes time to cast a vote.

For wheelchair user Lori Ross, former assistant managing director of the Independent Living Resource Centre in Winnipeg, just getting to the polling station can be a barrier. 

To get around she often takes Transit Plus, the city's transportation service for people with disabilities. But it only takes riders one way, Ross says, and because of the inconvenience some people might be discouraged from going to the polls.

Add an ill-timed snow dump to the mix, and getting anywhere by public transit poses a significant problem for people with mobility issues, she says.

During one winter election, Ross said her polling station was nearby but she couldn't get there in her wheelchair due to snow and severe weather. 

"I am not going to book a ride with Transit Plus to go two streets over," she said.

Mechanical failures

Allen Mankewich, 39, a disability advocate who uses a wheelchair, said during a recent hellish fall snowstorm, getting to an advanced voting station was difficult.

Some campaigns offer rides to polling stations. Mankewich appreciates the option, although he questions whether all campaign vehicles are always wheelchair accessible.

Allen Mankewich is a disability rights advocate in Winnipeg. (Bryce Hoye/CBC)

Buildings where polling stations are located also aren't always accessible by wheelchair, he said. 

"The automatic door was switched off at the polling station that I went to — the security guard who was at the door didn't know how to turn it on," said Mankewich, adding in the past he's encountered polling stations that are at the base or top of a flight of stairs. 

"There's been situations where I've had to look for someone to help me operate a lift." 

Not all stations wheelchair accessible

According to Elections Canada, most polling stations should be accessible, but voters can look up their polling station online to check. That information should also be present on voter information cards that arrive by mail.

If a small wheelchair symbol appears next to the location, it should be accessible. If a local polling station isn't marked accessible, voters with disabilities can contact their local voting office and ask for written permission to vote at a different polling station.

Ensuring that you don't have to go up or down a floor to get to the exact actual place where you vote, I think that would be good.- Allen Mankewich

Mankewich acknowledged efforts being made to improve accessibility, such as automatic doors and elevators at polling stations, but he said the accommodations aren't helpful if polling station staff aren't trained how to work them or if they're malfunctioning.

He'd like to see more polling stations located on the ground floor of buildings.

"Ensuring that you don't have to go up or down a floor to get to the exact actual place where you vote, I think that would be good," he said.

'Accessibility has really ramped up'

Leonard Furber, executive director of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, lives with a degenerative eye condition known as retinitis pigmentosa.

Furber is in his early 50s and has partial sight in one eye but is completely blind in the other and he uses a white cane to find his way around. 

He voted in the provincial election and went to advance polls for the federal election with the help of his wife. The same practices were in place in each case, including polling staff at the ready to help guide those with mobility issues from the registration table to the ballot box, he said.

"Compared to previous ones, the accessibility has really ramped up," he said. 

"When I got there and said, 'I'm legally blind, I'm visually impaired,' they instantly were able to make certain offers to me that weren't there before."

'Not every blind person or low vision person reads braille, and not every individual wants someone there knowing who you voted for.'​- Leonard Furber

For folks like Furber, Elections Canada says polling stations have enlarged ballots available upon request and magnifiers for people with partial sight. Braille options are also available.

In a statement, an Elections Canada spokesperson said the organization has made improvements through consultation with an advisory group for disability issues tasked with making voting more accessible for a range of Canadians.

Policies around vouching have been slightly relaxed so workers in assisted living facilities can vouch for residents, Elections Canada states. 

Election officers can provide assistance to voters with intellectual and physical disabilities, and people who have difficulty marking a ballot for any reason can bring someone with them to the polling station to help them vote or ask a polling station staff member to help mark a ballot.

Sign language interpretive services are also available, though they need to be requested from Elections Canada at least four days in advance. 

Elections Canada explains accessible voting in ASL:

Easy grip pencils are also available for people who may have difficulties with their hands, Election Canada states.

One device not offered during the federal election is known as an audio-tactile interface, which was available at some polling stations during the 2018 Winnipeg municipal election. Those machines are primarily designed for people with visual impairments and include audio prompts of various candidates, along with a remote control with different shaped buttons to use to make a selection.

Elections Canada piloted the technology nearly a decade ago in the Winnipeg North riding, but the vast majority of people who required assistance voting preferred to use other devices or to rely on help from polling staff.

Still, Furber can imagine why it would be good to have some of those devices on hand this election.

"Not every blind person or low vision person reads braille, and not every individual wants someone there knowing who you voted for," he said. 

Elections Canada says more and more polling stations are physically accessible and staff continue to receive training to help them better assist voters.

Furber hopes whoever assumes office on Monday listens to calls to implement a Canada-wide assistive device program to make the expensive devices available at the polls more accessible to folks who need them every day.

Elections Canada explains accessible voting:

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Erika Rodeck

Researcher

Erika Rodeck is a researcher with CBC Manitoba. She is part of the 2019 CBC Abilicrew Placements for Excellence (CAPE) cohort — a group of Canadians with disabilities who have been hired for three-month internships. She graduated from the University of Winnipeg this spring with a bachelor's degree in Conflict Resolution Studies.

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