The first debate between President Donald Trump and Former Vice President Joe Biden on September 29 was confounding enough as is—for the millions of viewers with hearing loss, it was almost impossible to follow. The debate lacked American Sign Language interpreters, and closed captioning lagged behind the ferocious back-and-forth between the candidates. The vice presidential debate on October 7 and the second presidential debate on October 22 were similarly inaccessible to the deaf and hard of hearing. This problem only highlights a wider issue faced by over 35 million voter-eligible Americans with disabilities, who are limited in how they engage with political campaigns and the electoral process. As we approach another national election in the midst of a pandemic, it’s time we make presidential campaigns and the electoral process fully accessible for all Americans with disabilities through better enforcement of voter equality legislation and improved accessibility infrastructure on television networks during campaign-related events.
The lack of ASL interpreters at the debates is only one of the obstacles that have impeded Americans with disabilities this election cycle. Just last year, the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired reported that the campaign websites of all twenty Democratic candidates and Donald Trump were insufficiently accessible for voters with visual impairment, intellectual disabilities, hearing loss, and epilepsy. And on September 24, a federal judge required that the White House provide sign language interpreters at Covid-19 briefings and press conferences. Previously, the White House has only provided closed captioning and transcripts for these briefings, which still remains a barrier for people with hearing loss. For months, the administration failed to ensure that Americans with disabilities had equal access to important information about the pandemic.
Access to information isn’t the only barrier to political engagement for Americans with disabilities. Past elections have seen a significant difference in voter turnout between registered voters with disabilities and those with none. Additionally, some prospective voters with disabilities still come across problems during voter registration. For example, people with multiple sclerosis or other physical disabilities cannot fill out forms or sign ballots. With fewer Americans voting in-person this year due to the pandemic, more voters with disabilities will have to complete mail-in ballots, which will be an additional challenge for many.
The issues faced in this election cycle are only a part of a larger issue, where weak accessibility policies and their poor enforcement have disenfranchised millions of Americans with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) requires state and local governments to ensure equal voting opportunities for Americans with disabilities, but voter participation among voters with disabilities has gone down over the past two elections. In 2016, turnout among registered voters without disabilities was 62.2%, compared to only 55.9% for voters with disabilities—the ADA is not doing enough to ensure equal voting opportunities for people with disabilities.
One major reason for this decline is that polling places are becoming less accessible. In 2016, the fraction of polling places across the United States with barriers to access for those with disabilities increased from less than one-half to almost two-thirds. Impediments to voters with disabilities include a lack of transportation to polling stations and a lack of accessible parking and entrances. Once inside, ballot machines designed for voters with visual, auditory, or cognitive impairment are frequently unused or broken, and polling staff are often reluctant to help voters with disabilities cast their ballots. Even though far fewer people will be voting in-person this year, Americans with disabilities will still have to contend with voter registration forms and completing mail-in ballots. A lack of serious enforcement of the ADA and policies that streamline voter registration in many states has meant that voters with disabilities face many barriers to participating in the electoral process.
Despite the issues that many Americans with disabilities face when voting, some states have been successful in managing a good turnout. In Colorado, there was a 69% turnout among registered voters with disabilities in 2016. The state enforced the ADA more earnestly, auditing polling places for meeting accessibility standards, and allocating funding towards meeting those standards. By ensuring that every polling location in the state had full accessibility, Colorado managed to raise turnout among voters with disabilities close to the overall 71.3% turnout. Other states, such as New Hampshire and Rhode Island, have followed suit. Nebraska has the highest voter turnout among people with disabilities, at 74.3% in the last presidential election. Washington, D.C. requires poll workers to ask voters if they require a machine to vote instead of a paper ballot, which has had some success. New York has also introduced legislation that would simplify typeface on paper ballots, allow voters with disabilities to change their polling location to one more accessible to them, and allow offices that support people with disabilities to distribute voter registration forms.
Another way that states have tried to boost turnout among Americans with disabilities—and Americans overall—is implementing better voter registration systems. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have adopted automatic voter registration, where citizens who interact with government agencies like the DMV will automatically be registered to vote, unless they choose to opt out. In Oregon, which adopted automatic voter registration in January 2016, over 116,000 people registered to vote in the 2016 election who would not have otherwise. These new voters also better represented the state populace, as many new registrants were younger, lower- and middle-income, and more racially diverse. For citizens with disabilities, automatic voter registration eliminates the need for extra paper forms.
States have also implemented accessible voting machines for voters with disabilities. Since 2016, New Hampshire has used an accessible voting system called One4All for its voters with visual impairment. During the primary this year, voters used a touchscreen and keyboard to enter their ballots while listening to a synthetic voice that reads out the candidates. The system also prints out the voters’ choices onto conventional ballot sheets, which can be counted along with the other ballots cast by voters without disabilities. This system allows voters with visual impairment to vote privately and without outside assistance from poll workers. While a common issue with accessible voting machines is that poll workers have little knowledge in how to use them, this can easily be rectified. In preparation for the presidential election, election officials in Georgia have given extensive training for its poll workers so that they can assist voters with disabilities on election day and manage the accessible voting machines.
Beyond accessible campaign websites, presidential candidates can do more to engage and accommodate Americans with disabilities. The National Council on Independent Living published a guide on how campaigns can be more accessible to people with disabilities. For campaign events, the guide recommends choosing sites with accessible entrances, designating a seating section for people with disabilities near the front of the venue, and hiring ASL interpreters. The guide gives advice on how to integrate disability into a candidate’s platform and communicate with politically active people with disabilities to receive feedback and advice on policies. It also suggests making volunteering more accessible to supporters with disabilities, such as offering roles in administration and social media for those who don’t prefer more active or direct voter interaction. Campaigns that promote engagement among people with disabilities will make these voters more enthusiastic about the candidate on election day.
In addition, we need to rethink accessibility on television. Closed captioning is insufficient for providing accessibility to the deaf and hard of hearing. It is often inaccurate: in a survey by the Hearing Loss Association of America, only 16% of respondents said that the quality of captioning was “Good.” There are other limitations, too: closed captioning doesn’t always identify speakers or background noises, and it sometimes obscures important information on screen. There are significant captioning delays for any live programming, such as debates. Finally, English is like a second language for many people who are deaf or hard of hearing, so relying solely on English captioning can cause confusion and misunderstanding.
ASL interpreters, in contrast, are able to communicate in time with what’s being spoken, and an interpreter uses facial expressions and gestures to convey important nuance and specificity in a person’s speech. The main issue with an ASL interpreter onscreen is that it has to occupy a large part of the screen so that viewers that are deaf or hard of hearing can clearly understand the sign language—which can be an annoyance for people without disabilities. One method to solve this issue would be “closed signing,” where viewers are given the option to have an ASL interpreter onscreen, similar to closed captioning. Another method would be to have a separate channel that includes both the programming and the ASL interpreter side-by-side. Either of these methods would greatly benefit those with auditory impairments and prevent the issues that arose during this year’s debates.
Another method for improving accessibility for the deaf and hard of hearing could be to bypass the television entirely. After the first presidential debate, the Deaf Professional Arts Network (DPAN) uploaded an accessibility-friendly version of the debate on DPAN.tv, including an ASL interpreter for each candidate and the moderator, as well as closed captioning. DPAN also did the same for the vice presidential debate and the second presidential debate. This system is simple and widely accessible to anyone with a computer and an internet connection. However, while there has been a shift towards online streaming in recent years, lower-income households are less likely to have internet access or a device to view the debates online, so streaming does not represent a universal solution. Television networks must improve accessibility as well so that anyone watching won’t miss out on important election and candidate information as it’s being told.
In the past hundred years, there have been vast improvements to technology and the way we communicate and transmit information. While television and the internet have made it easier for presidential campaigns to reach a broader audience, there are still many issues with in-person and digital accessibility for millions of Americans with disabilities. We need to make sure that these mediums of communication benefit everyone in equal measure, and that the electoral process is simple for everyone.