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The Price of Some Ballots

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following is re-printed with permission from The CCD's Horror Gazette: July, 1999.

Marie and Chris Stark of Ottawa claim they have discovered something more painful than a visit to the dentist, more traumatic even than a root canal. All you need to do to get your share of this misery is want to vote, be visually impaired, and live in Ontario-or does this apply to just Ontario? If you know more than we do about that, let us know.

Our story begins a few days after Premier Mike Harris called the 1999 provincial election. An item of mail arrived at the Stark's home that they managed to determine-neither Marie nor Chris is able to read print-was an information sheet from Elections Ontario. On inquiring, they were told that a tape version had been ordered from the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, but that the delivery date wasn't known; "call back in a few weeks." Eventually, Elections Ontario agreed to send this material over the Internet. They further requested some documentary information indicating what provisions had been made to accommodate blind voters. They were told that someone from Elections Ontario would call back but it never happened, even after several reminder phone calls.

Chapter two in this saga begins with the arrival of the enumeration card, once again, in print only. "It would have been nice," comments Chris in a May 24, posting, widely circulated on the Internet, "to have had some tactile marking or even a Braille card name on all cards, so that when people who are blind received them, it would be possible to separate these cards from the junk mail."

But the scope of Election Ontario's poor attitude to access issues became apparent only after the Starks realised they would not be in their constituency on election day. "Because we could not vote on election day, we called for information about the advance poll. We called the Returning Office for our area for information about advanced polls and the provisions to facilitate the casting of secret ballots by voters who are blind. We were told that the locations were published in the newspapers. . . .We were further brusquely notified that [the official] was concerned with the needs of "the broader masses." The advance poll locations had not been selected with accessibility in mind and adequate, frequent public transportation service was not a consideration for selection.

On advance polling eve, they managed to get through to the province's chief elections officer, though that encounter turned out to be more revealing than it was confidence-building. "The conversation," Chris recalls, "commenced with him delivering a lengthy lecture on why we should not use a template. He did not recommend them. He said that thousands of templates had been printed and circulated through the province. Very few would be used. It was a waste of money. It was further stated that the notched ballots were tested with eight persons who were blind. However, he was unable to tell us how to use them to vote with confidence." Now the question arises, which do you require more of to be a blind voter in Ontario-patience, or a warped sense of humour?

These days, as far as the broadest social policy discussions go, disability-as an issue of governmental concern-is more and more connected with the word citizenship. That's not simply the result of the natural, ongoing evolutionary process of integration, although that certainly explains part of it. Mostly, this linkage has come about because for years, disabled advocates have insisted that "citizenship is us," every time they get anywhere near an elected official or a senior civil servant.

When we represent ourselves as equal citizens, it means we're no longer "the less fortunate," "the deserving poor" or "the chronically unemployed"; it means we now must be related to non-traditional, with no preconceptions as to limitations. Best of all, governments have had lots of experience relating to this handy mental construct of the citizen. Unlike "the disabled" of old, citizens pay taxes, always demand their full due, are unexceptional, and can never be safely disregarded.

In consequence, features attributable to citizenship matters have grown in importance over time for organisations like CCD. With our agitation (and a significant assist from Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms), laws no longer exclude blind jurors, accommodations mean that we are no longer second-class citizens when we provide testimony . . . and then, there's voting in Canada's elections. That's probably as good a segue as any to return to the Starks to see how they fared when it came time to cast their ballots.

Needless to say, ". . . it was with trepidation and uncertainty that we faced the challenge of voting in the advance poll." Yet they persevered. Following an official's instructions that featured the confident phrase "you'll see the signs"-they had self-identified several times during that conversation-they surmounted the obstacle- strewn sidewalk and somehow got themselves from the bus stop to the polling station. "While there," says Chris, "several sighted voters came in and voiced concern about the difficulty they experienced finding the location."

Since the attendant couldn't describe how ballots should be folded, one of the two had its voting surface exposed; so much for privacy. Both found the circle for marking much smaller than it should have been, smaller by far than it is for federal election ballots. But at least the business had finally been transacted; two and a-half hours round trip, all tolled.

Valery Anderson's experience during the same election was also not impressive. An official read her the candidates names, but only which party they belonged to after she pointed out that sighted voters had access to that information when they voted. A friend was present who was willing to assist but, unaccountably, he was not allowed to.

Valery is a member of the London regional Ontarians with Disabilities Act Committee, which made a point of connecting the issue around that legislation with the treatment of voters with disabilities during the recent election. The way their message came across is something like, "if you want to know how serious the Harris government is about the ODA, then get a load of the off-hand way we're being treated as voters in this election." Obviously, this government's version of an ODA has little to do with moving disabled Ontarians any closer to being a part of "the broader masses."

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