By: Kevin Rollason
Disability Matters’ Natalie Mulaire. The campaign not only encourages people living with special needs to vote, but to examine how parties and candidates address issues affecting their lives.
Gone are the days a person living with disabilities would be denied the right to vote because of a flight of stairs. Or because they couldn’t see the ballot. Or because they couldn’t leave their home.
There are about 3,000 voting stations open during a provincial election. Elections Manitoba officials said 99 per cent of the locations were accessible to people living with physical disabilities during the 2011 election.
“We are working to make sure they are all accessible,” Mark Robertson, Elections Manitoba’s manager of elections operation, said recently.
Alison Mitchell, manager of communications and public information with Elections Manitoba, said there is a polling station in a small northern community that still has accessibility problems, so organizers are working to find a new location.
“If we’re not at 100 per cent, then we will be very close,” she said.
Robertson said decades of working with the disability community to ensure all Manitobans are able to fulfil their right to vote has led to many changes to ensure all ballots can get into the box.
“It has come to the point where people (who don’t live with disabilities) don’t even realize it is accessible,” he said. “People come in with injuries and don’t realize it is accessible but it makes it easy for them as well as with others.”
Josef Mulaire is a Manitoban living with special needs who will be casting a ballot April 19.
Josef’s parent, Natalie, said she’ll not only be taking the 31-year-old to the polling station so he can exercise his vote but will also help him understand the electoral issues that concern him and assist him in the voting booth. (Josef lives with cognitive disabilities and will need some assistance.)
“He can make a choice, but we have to spend more time talking about the election with him,” she said recently.
“I have to work hard on it. We have to talk about it first because when we get to the voting place, that’s not where you want to have the discussion. We don’t want to have a debate when we’re in the voting booth.
“I have about a month to go to assist him.”
Mulaire isn’t just helping Josef cast his ballot. She, along with numerous others in the disability community, have created and are promoting the Disability Matters: Vote 2016 campaign. The campaign not only is encouraging people living with special needs to vote but also to take a look at five priorities and issues that affect their lives and how the different parties and candidates will address them.
“We first wanted to make sure people are on the voting list,” Mulaire said. “Then, we want them to consider and think about the five priorities when it comes time to vote.”
- Make the province fully accessible by implementing the entire Accessibility for Manitobans Act (passed in 2013) and establish standards in employment, transportation, information and communication, and built environment.
- Fair wages for disability-support workers.
- Timely access to disability services.
- Unleashing employment potential for the 35,000 people living with disabilities who are either unemployed or not actively looking for paid employment and the thousands of others who are underemployed. (There are 87,120 Manitobans between the ages of 15 and 64 living with special needs, according to the group.)
- Dignified income for people living with special needs.
Karen Fonseth, executive director of Direct Action in Support of Community Homes (DASCH), said they will be looking at getting residents from all 50 of its group homes to the ballot box.
“They are residents, and they live in houses in ridings. They’re just like you and I,” Fonseth said. “We make sure everyone can get out to vote. The support by us depends on the needs of the resident. If they need a wheelchair vehicle to get out and vote, we will get them there.
“I’m anticipating their vote participation will be a higher percentage than the rest of the (population).”
Fonseth said paying caregivers more is a big issue for people living with disabilities.
“This is a large part of the reason someone in care will go through 600 to 700 caregivers in their lifetime,” she said. “You cannot build relationships. You can’t build bonds. This is absolutely devastating for the folks in support.
“How can you thrive in life when everyone leaves you?”
Nancy Hughes, the executive director of Shalom Residences, which operates six group homes for people living with special needs, said it will also be encouraging all 35 of its residents to vote.
Hughes said people living with special needs would have easier lives if all five priorities being pushed by Disability Matters were enacted by the province.
“They are all important,” she said. “People are so reliant on their staff. A decent wage is needed to limit the turnover of staff.”
Allen Mankewich, a spokesman for Disability Matters, said it will continue to push Elections Manitoba and the political parties to make it easier for people to cast their vote.
“We encourage the parties to make their campaign events accessible,” Mankewich said. “We encourage them to make their campaign offices accessible. We also tell them how to reach out to people with disabilities.”
Mankewich said Disability Matters has approached all four main Manitoba political parties for feedback on its five priority issues. It organized a debate between representatives of the parties March 31.
Mankewich said the dignified income priority is important because Manitobans with severe and prolonged disabilities currently receive employment and income assistance, putting them well below the poverty line, until they turn 65 and become eligible for old age security and the guaranteed income supplement.
“Each of the priorities are important in their own way,” he said. “They will make for a better Manitoba for people with disabilities if we had them in place. It will result in a Manitoba that works better.”
Meanwhile, Elections Manitoba says people living with disabilities can vote even if they can’t make it to the polling station.
“We have a homebound voting option for people with disabilities,” Mitchell said. “You can apply to vote in your home or health-care facility and our voting person will go right up to your bed with the ballot box.”
Mitchell said other things are in place at polling stations to help people cast their ballot, including magnifying rulers, braille templates for the ballots, and large-print voter lists.
“We also have curbside voting for people who can’t exit their vehicles at the voting station,” she said. “We also will provide, on request, an ASL (sign language) interpreter… sometimes, they go to homes.”
Mitchell said voting access for people living with disabilities begins during the training sessions for elections staff. “We train our returning officers in accessibility. We talk about respect. We talk about people first. We talk about voters who are deaf, who have cognitive impairments. We have it in our returning officer manual. We want people to be aware of things.”
As for Josef, Mulaire said he has always loved the process of voting.
“He seems energized by the experience,” she said. “He sees everyone together. When he votes, he knows that he is part of the greater community. It is citizenship. His vote counts, and I’m pretty sure he gets that.
“I see it as a vote he does himself.”