April 20, 2010
Retired Unitarian minister Peter Hughes had to enter a polling station on the seat of his pants.
“That’s all I could do. They didn’t have a good railing and I didn’t want to fall,” said Hughes, 57, who had polio as a child.
Post-polio syndrome has him using a walker to get around, but to vote in the March 17, 2008 federal by-election, Hughes had to descend the stairs of Toronto’s St. Basil’s Church on his rear end, while another voter carried his walker. It was the only way Hughes could get inside.
“They clearly were not prepared for disabled people to be there,” says Hughes.
Hughes told his story to the Ontario lawmakers who are debating changes this week to the Elections Act. Ontario leaves itself open to human rights challenges, he said, if it fails to ensure voting in provincial elections are barrier-free.
“It depends on the luck of the draw whether you can vote,” says Hughes.
A provincial survey of polling stations revealed numerous glitches in the last election, including lengthy distances from entrances to polling stations,
inoperable elevators, ramps too steep for wheelchairs, furniture bolted to floors blocking access and too-narrow spaces behind polling booths.
Elizabeth Lounsbury, 66, has been in a wheelchair for 20 years with post-polio syndrome, and has given up on voting in her Nickel Belt (Sudbury) riding
because election officials keep using a motel that has a step.
The first time she complained, it was suggested her husband vote for her.
“I saw red. I said, ‘No one is voting for me.’ ”
Lounsbury said the motel owner refused to install a ramp, arguing she didn’t want to spend the money.
“I learned over the years to forget it. I’m tired of fighting,” says Lounsbury.
Advocates for the disabled have long fought for rules that require polling stations to be accessible.
But, even though MPPs will discuss this week voting machines that would make casting a ballot easier for people with physical challenges, the chair of the Accessibility of Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance says these are only partial victories.
There is no definition of accessibility, says David Lepofsky, no redress if a polling station is not barrier free and no requirement that Elections Ontario
remove a site that advocates for the disable find to be inaccessible.
“What about democracy?” says Lepofsky. “Being able to vote independently and privately is a right we should all have.”
Despite the efforts of understanding election officials, Sue Morgan, 70, has found that doesn’t always happen.
When the woman, who has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair, learned there’d be a new polling station in the last provincial election, she went to
check it out.
“It was wonderful,” she says. But on election day, the only way into the church as over a four-inch curb she couldn’t negotiate.
She appreciated the fact the returning officer and another official brought polling materials out to her, but “there was no confidentiality at all. Anyone
could have seen the ballot, especially coming from behind me.”
Lauri Sue Robertson found less consideration when she went to vote at Birch Cliff Heights Public School in Scarborough in a recent provincial election,
and found the “accessible” entrance was a pair of steel doors with no handles, no windows, no knockers and no way to get in.
Robertson, who has arthritis and was using a walker, had to return to the parking lot and ask another voter to let the people inside know she was trying
to get in.
When Robertson, who runs Disability Awareness Consultants, suggested the steel doors be kept open, an election worker replied, “I’m not going to make my volunteers wear their coats just so people with disabilities can vote,”
Street nurse Cathy Crowe ran in Toronto’s Feb. 4 provincial by-election. At the first poll she visited that day, she saw a person in a wheelchair being
carried up a flight of stairs by friends.
“I was pretty shocked,” says Crowe.
She later took picture at a number of polling sites showing stairs, poor signage, cluttered hallways, entrances blocked by cars. Election officials must
do a better job at finding accessible sites, she says.
Hughes had to leave the polling station at St. Basil’s Church through loading doors that didn’t open fully and had a perilously steep ramp. And even though he complained to staff, the minister found himself in the same situation when he voted in the federal election on Oct. 14, 2008.
The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled this February that Elections Canada had to stop using stations that did not provide barrier-free access, and ordered agency to pay the minister $10,000 in damages.