Making sure polling places are handicapped accessible turning out to be quite the task

BATAVIA — Roland Poles thought he had an easy task earlier this year.

His assignment was to check out some polling sites in Genesee County to ensure they were all handicapped accessible.  "This is bigger than I thought. I have stepped into something," the disability rights advocate said Monday. "I’m hoping to get my letter done by Tuesday."

Poles began in August at the new Independent Living of Genesee Region office on Main Street. His first major mission was during the primary election in September. He sampled six village and church halls and a library as typical polling sites to see if voters with disabilities could easily use them. "Come November we want to have people be able to go and vote," he said.

Richmond Memorial Library had a major issue of a steep ramp with no level resting spot in the middle, he said. The door’s swing was also an inch short of the required 32 inches. He felt that a person in a wheelchair could be in danger of rolling backwards and down the nearby steps to manoeuvre around the opened door. The Ross Street facility was updated three years ago, City Schools Building & Grounds Superintendent Jim Jacobs said. It was rebuilt to include that middle resting spot and heat to melt any ice that formed during winter. It had conformed to the precepts of the Americans with Disabilities Act, he said.

That change had merit, but it may not be enough, Poles said. "Richmond Library has put their best foot forward to solve the issues of accessibility," he said. "But we’re looking at crunch time. Elections are in November." He is proposing to move that site entirely until a solution can be implemented. He realizes that redoing the ramp would be costly and believes that a back loading dock could be used to get wheelchair-bound people inside. In the meantime, he thinks the site could just be changed to somewhere else.

But Batavia wasn’t the only municipality on Poles’ list. He found that Stafford had no polling signs up outside to even indicate it was a polling site; Oakfield had a "minor" issue of providing a handicap parking spot with uneven ground; East Pembroke did not list an address or post signs outside of its church voting spot; and Le Roy had four poll booths clustered in one area. All but Richmond Library seem to be easy fixes, he said, and he hopes that polling officials take his observations seriously.

"I think it’s in their best interest to respond, to better their polling numbers," he said. "They all have guidelines to go by." Richard Siebert and Dawn Cassidy, Genesee County’s Republican and Democratic election commissioners respectively, agreed that they were quite open to comments about not only accessibility issues but anything related to the voting process. There was one complaint after the Primary and both commissioners visited the site to see what should or could be done. The site host, YWCA, responded with parking spots closer to the building, which was a good fix, Siebert said. Before that, the Board of Elections hired a former Independent Living council to review polling places "to see if they qualified" for full accessibility, he said. To his and Cassidy’s knowledge, every site met the standards as of this year’s Primary. Magnifying glasses are even provided to help those with visual limitations read the ballots.

"Some people are hesitant to change," Siebert said. "We didn’t design (the polling system) but we’re trying to make it as accessible as we can. We welcome any comments."  Poles took his time to check out the places and draft his list. He wanted to make sure he was right in his observations. His guide has been the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which were covered in a state Association on Independent Living workshop earlier this month.  According to Cary LaCheen of the National Centre for Law and Economic Justice, both of those acts require districts to complete and submit an ADA checklist. A 2006 NCLEJ review found that nearly half of the districts didn’t even submit such a checklist and many districts answered "no" to questions about if they had policies or procedures in place to accommodate people with disabilities.

Poles wants to make sure that Genesee County serves as an excellent local example.  Genesee County has the largest population of disabled people in the three counties (Genesee, Wyoming and Orleans). Why wouldn’t we be the bell-ringer for making improvements?" he said. "I have felt the thrill to be able to assist people to better their lives in the community. It’s huge, as far as the people we serve and the quality of life they’re trying to get to."  His next-to-final step was to draft and submit a letter to the Board of Elections describing the issues he found and suggested solutions. He hopes to finish the job after having a discussion with Siebert and Cassidy. Both commissioners were ready to review those issues, they said Tuesday.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: A follow-up article about this situation will be published in The Daily News before Election Day on Nov. 2.)

The Daily News
Wednesday, October 20, 2010


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