In the Way of Democracy

Disabled people who want to vote on Election Day may find a bumpy road

Abby Road confronted numerous barriers to keep her voting streak unbroken during the city's September primary—and she's afraid that she'll face more obstacles to vote in the Nov. 3 general election.

"I don't want to lose any more of my rights," Road declares. She's confined to an aging, 300-pound, battery-powered wheelchair because of arthritis and a degenerative bone disease, and the 46-year old is working diligently to correct what she believes is a dangerous situation. (See "Limited Movement," May 10, 2007.)

Road, a pseudonym she often uses, lives near Speedway and Columbus boulevards. She says she's never voted by mail, and instead chooses to go to her local polling place on Election Day.

In the past, that wasn't a problem. For the 2005 city election, she voted at a church on Columbus Boulevard; two years ago, she cast her ballot at another church only a few blocks from her house.

But this year, things changed. In Road's area, the city is now using one polling location for people from four different precincts. As a result, Road's polling place is now the clubhouse of the Arcadia Park Apartments, near Broadway Boulevard and Arcadia Avenue. That's about 1 1/2 miles from her home.

Tucson City Clerk Roger Randolph explains what happened: "Due to a consolidation of polling places, we had to move hers around a little bit."

It wasn't the distance to the polling place that Road found disconcerting. "I ride on city streets all over and don't mind it," she says. Instead, it was the conditions she experienced on Arcadia Avenue that discouraged Road.

The east side of the street has sidewalks, but no curb cuts for wheelchairs. The west side of Arcadia borders Rincon/University High School and has no sidewalk, just a gravel path.

On Election Day, Road instead maneuvered her wheelchair down the street. "It has bumpy-bumpies," she remarks of Arcadia's rough pavement.

More threatening, she says, were the automobiles using Arcadia, along with the school buses lined up on the street. "I was just trying not to get hit," she remembers.

Road is not the only person to complain about the sidewalk situation.

"The lack of accessible sidewalks in Tucson is a great access issue and a concern we often hear," says J.J. Rico, an attorney for the Arizona Center for Disability Law.

Once Road arrived at the apartment complex where the polling site was located, she found there weren't any sidewalks through the parking lot—but that was only a minor irritant compared to what came next.

"A sign pointed to another door," she says about accessibility for disabled people to the clubhouse room. "But I couldn't get my wheelchair through the door (because the opening wasn't wide enough)."

At the main entrance to the polling place, Road came upon a threshold which looks insignificant to an able-bodied person. But to someone in a wheelchair, it was major.

"I had to ram the threshold," Road recalls. "The second time, I got in."

Road says that upon exiting, the drop caused by the threshold gave her quite a jolt. "It doesn't look like much," she says, "but it was painful."

When contacted about the threshold problem, Pima County officials, who are assisting the city with the election, indicated that they will install a ramp for the Nov. 3 vote. Randolph also says additional signage will be used at the site.

Those changes are missing the main point, says Road.

"They did a terrible job of choosing a polling place," Road believes. "This isn't just about me. ... I'm doing this for the lady pushing a baby stroller as well as other disabled people."

Randolph says the city reached a 2005 settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice agreeing that polling places meet the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). The city clerk says his office uses a checklist while selecting polling places to comply with the DOJ agreement.

"We ensure ADA compliance from the street (to the polling place)," Randolph points out. "We can't ensure it for all streets."

Road tried to get officials to move her polling place for the general election, but that's probably not going to happen.

Peri Jude Radecic, executive director of the Arizona Center for Disability Law, says Road might have legal grounds to take action. That option, Road says, is one she is considering.

While Road's complaints have received a lot of attention from public and political officials, she isn't happy about much of what's she's heard.

"Political officials are acting like I should chose another option," Road says about her contact with both Democratic and Republican Party offices. They suggested she vote by mail instead, Road remembers.

"All options should be available to me," Road insists. "Instead, they're putting me in danger."

To get to the apartment complex, some people may think Road should use Sun Van, the transportation service for disabled people.

"You shouldn't have to be in a car to vote," Road responds. "What if I took the bus? I believe in my right to vote. Having options means I should be able to choose, and I choose to go to my polling place."

Road feels that people are being discouraged from voting. "And I'm being discouraged in every way possible," she says.

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