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Voting Can Be Challenging For People With Disabilities On Both Sides Of State Line

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Update: Nov. 4, 2014   2:30PM

On Election Day, respondents to a new Tell KC query told us their polling places were not well-equipped to help them vote.

Mary-Corinne Corely has cerebral-palsy-like symptoms in her legs due to an illness when she was an infant. Some days, she says, the symptoms make it impossible for her to do steps at all.

When she got to her polling place at St. Peters Church in Kansas City, Corley says, she found a flight of steep stone steps. An official said there was an elevator but he wasn't sure where it was or how close it was to parking.

Corely says she was able to navigate the steps down, and another voter assisted her up when it was time to leave.

"I feel as though I was somewhat inhibited from being able to cast my vote, "she says. 

The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) explicitly spells out federal requirements for accessibility to polling places.

Election polls, like grocery stores and libraries, are places of public accommodation and covered by the ADA.

Advocates for those with disabilities in the metro say while election boards are generally trying to meet these requirements, challenges remain.

For example, polling places are required to have curbside voting for those who can’t get out of the car. An official from both parties needs to deliver the ballot to the voter, and make sure it gets properly recorded and placed in a voting box.

Clay County Republican Director Dave Reinhart says each of the 68 polling places in the county signs a contract and pays $50 rent. The contract requires the polls to be ADA compliant. But training for the part-time poll workers, he says, could always be improved.

“These volunteers only work three or four times a year, depending on how many elections we have. So training is always important for them to understand that there will be people voting with special needs," he says. 

Each poll must provide access to the wheelchair-bound voter. At some polling places, this access amounts to a makeshift privacy barrier at a table equipped with a paper ballot.

Matthew Rumsey, with the Coalition for Independence, says the visually impaired frequently experience problems.

Specially equipped booths are supposed to provide audio that reads a ballot aloud and a touchpad that enlarges type or provides a touchpad for the blind.

Also, Rumsey says loopholes in the law may require those with disabilities to go to a different polling place than their neighbors. That's because some buildings such as religious organizations may not be required to adhere to the ADA.

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KCUR's Beyond Our Borders project will examine the Missouri-Kansas state line in the Kansas City metropolitan area through the end of 2014.

  “I’d recommend people call their local election authority to make sure their designated polling place is totally accessible,” he says.

Bob Nichols, Democratic Director of the Jackson County Election Board, says aging equipment can present a problem.

“Does it always work the way we want it to, or it’s intended to? No,” he says. “ We’re working with equipment that’s nine years old. Technology has changed.”

Nichols says the election board has technicians on call to respond to problems on election day. He says officials intend to have new equipment in time for the 2016 elections.

Accessibility is on the minds of some voters.

“Our votes and spending abilities count equally,” says Overland Park resident Sharon Joseph, who uses a wheelchair. “Yet our equal access to the full American dream of life, liberty, and the true pursuit of happiness is still seriously lacking.”

Joseph was responding to a Tell KC query, written by Lindsey Foat at KCPT, about how accessible the Kansas City area is for people with disabilities.

Kevin Siek, whose wife has multiple sclerosis and is in a wheelchair, told Tell KC that voting should be a high priority for people with disabilities.

“Justin Dart, the father of the ADA, once said that folks with disabilities should ‘get involved in politics like your life depends on it, because it does!’” Siek says.

The consumer finance website Wallet Hub recently rated Overland Park, Kansas, as the best U.S. city for individuals with disabilities. The rating was based on such factors as economics, quality of life and health care accessibility. Kansas City, Missouri ranked 51st out the 150 cities.

TellKC, a community engagement collaboration between KCUR-FM and KCPT, asked for responses to the report. You can give us feedback too by clicking on the question: Is KC an easy or difficult place to live with disabilities?

This look at the Missouri-Kansas state line also is part of KCUR's months-long examination of how geographic borders affect our daily lives in Kansas City. KCUR will go Beyond Our Borders  and spark a community conversation through social outreach and innovative journalism.

We will share the history of these lines, how the borders affect the current Kansas City experience and what’s being done to bridge or dissolve them. Be a source for Beyond Our Borders: Share your perspective and experiences on the state line with KCUR. 

I partner with communities to uncover the ignored or misrepresented stories by listening and letting communities help identify and shape a narrative. My work brings new voices, sounds, and an authentic sense of place to our coverage of the Kansas City region. My goal is to tell stories on the radio, online, on social media and through face to face conversations that enhance civic dialogue and provide solutions. Email me at lauraz@kcur.org and follow me on Twitter @laurazig.
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