Maggie Astor’s New York Times article, “A Failed System: What it’s like to vote with a disability during a pandemic” corroborated what I’ve learned from people with disabilities in Michigan.

Concerns include inaccessible polling precincts, difficulty reading small text on ballots, inadequate parking, doors that voters can’t get into, make shift ramps, obstacles left in hallways, fear of waiting in long lines, inconsistently trained poll workers and voting equipment malfunctions.

There are 38 million eligible voters with disabilities in the USA.

Specific to COVID-19, some voters with disabilities lack assistance to complete an absentee ballot. Additionally, since March, many people with disabilities have self-quarantined, including those in nursing homes.

Today, a person with quadriplegia and reduced lung capacity told me, “As much as I want to vote in-person, I can’t risk it. My neighbor is mailing my absentee ballot. I wish we could vote by phone. This election, West Virginia for example, allows a mobile platform, computer or phone, for persons with disabilities.”

One of the voters in Astor’s piece, has a disability that makes it impossible for her to sign her name by hand and fill-in ovals. Each time she tried to submit her ballot using her signature stamp, it was denied. Finally, she left her ballot with her choices on a separate sheet attached to her front door, where two election officials filled out the ballot, then sent her a text photo of her ballot and sealed the envelope. This accommodation meant the voter could not cast an independent, private ballot.

I’ve been a part of numerous webinars addressing voters with disabilities and there are many groups trying to remedy these problems, including Our Time Our Vote and Detroit Disability Power.

Detroit Disability Power has an extensive list of resources for all disabilities. They’re also surveying the voting experiences of Michigan voters with disabilities through a questionnaire on their website.

I asked my close friend, Kaaryn Gustafson, law professor and director of the Center on Law, Equality and Race as well as Associate Dean of Academic Community Engagement at the University of California Irvine to share her thoughts.

Gustafson, who uses a wheelchair, is a person of color and a single mom. She grew-up in Michigan and has family in Traverse City.

“Things have gotten better through enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act. I usually vote early. Still, I have had problems with early voting sites that did not provide a way for me to vote secretly. And ballot drop-off locations are not always barrier-free. People have different disabilities. Touch screens are great for some people but not necessarily for people who are blind or low vision. For some with a spectrum of abilities to participate in the democratic process, there has to be a spectrum of ways for people to cast their votes,” said Kaaryn.

I’ve been quarantined since the lockdown. This will be my second time voting absentee. The first time, I was hospitalized. There are many issues and candidates in this election that I, as a person with a disability, care about. I’m also sad to not be voting in-person. I’ve worked with others to make voting with a disability easier and more secure in northern Michigan. I like the public, communal aspect of voting.

Nonetheless, however I vote, I must vote. My vote after all, is my voice.

Contact Susan Odgers at

She is a 33-year resident of Traverse City and has been using a wheelchair for 44 years. She is a faculty member of Northwestern Michigan College and Grand Valley State University.

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