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Get Out Of My Voting Booth, Say The Blind

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Vancouver, BC - The last time Eddy Morten voted, his mom had to read him his ballot and then guide him into the voting booth. The deaf-blind Burnaby man is angry at being denied the same dignity and privacy of independent voting other Canadians take for granted. He wonders why ballots can't be in Braille or electronic, allowing fully accessible voting for his community.

"I am concerned about the future. If I had no family, how could I do it?" says Morten, who communicates using an interpreter or by email. "They (Elections BC) should think twice about more access for people who are blind, visually impaired and deaf-blind."

One thing is sure. When Morten, currently studying screen reading and magnification software programs for the blind at a community college, does cast his ballot it won't be for Gordon Campbell. "We in the deaf-blind community are stuck without CNIB services due to government cutbacks. Now we are stuck at home without any services and are isolated in the darkness and silence."

Born deaf but with good vision, at eight years old he became blind in his left eye. Two years later Morten was diagnosed with Usher's Syndrome in his right eye and lost his vision completely. In spite of this, he became an accomplished athlete in cross-country running, wrestling, track and field and swimming. He went on to win numerous medals in track and field and wrestling and also competed at the Paralympic Games three times, the World Championships and World Games two times and also played ice hockey.

Morten wants the government, rather than a charity like the CNIB, to provide services like interpreters and equipment for blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted people. Since it isn't easy for his community to have a voice, he feels marginalized and cut out of mainstream Canadian society. And the ability to vote easily is a fundamental democratic right.

"They should look at us. We can speak up for ourselves and they should listen to our concerns and not ignore us," says Morten. "They should be ashamed because I have paid taxes but never get any service. It sounds like they take advantage of my money."

A letter from Elections BC Communications Manager Jennifer Miller says that number stickers used on the current voting template will be in Braille, but the names of the candidates will not. So blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted people will still be treated like second class citizens and must stand by and have their ballots read out to them. Miller said the $100,000 it would cost for all Braille ballots could not be justified, even though the CNIB estimates there are approximately 20,000 people with sensory problems in BC and the Yukon alone. And a nation-wide advocacy group, The Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians (AEBC), considers that a very low estimate since not everyone with visual impairment registers with the CNIB. The group is also incredulous at the $100,000 Elections BC estimate quoted for providing Braille ballots.

AEBC member Paul Thiele, among many other accomplishments, is founder and director of UBC's Crane Library and Resource Centre, the principal resource for people who are blind or print-handicapped at the university. He insists federal and provincial government elections become fully accessible to all voting Canadians. "We've been waiting far too long already," he says. "It's too late for this election but if there's going to be another federal election soon we want equality and autonomy to begin now."