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Ensuring that Every Vote Counts (Disability Issues)

Christine Brown

On March 17, 2008, Peter Hughes went to vote in a federal by-election. The polling  station was located down a  long flight of stairs. The solution? “I  sat down on the edge of the stairs and I went down on the seat of my pants down to the bottom of the stairs while somebody carried  my walker,” Mr. Hughes said. With municipal elections in  the news, many ETFO members will have taken advantage of those teachable moments  that  arise  when a  student comments on  a  lawn  sign,   a  television  story, or a canvasser  at the front door. You  may have found  yourself explaining  how  important elections are in providing individuals a voice and an opportunity to help shape the world they live in. With older students, you may have had a more indepth discussion about what it means to live in a democratic  society with free and open elections. You may have pointed out that  across the globe, millions do not enjoy these benefits.

Seven months later when Peter Hughes arrived at the same polling station he once again experienced the same barriers. And, because he lives in a democratic society, he filed a complaint against Elections Canada with the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

Last February, the commission  ordered Elections Canada  to revise its standard  lease for polling  stations  to  require that  they  “provide level access and are barrier free.” The commission also ordered  Elections Canada  to put in  place a procedure  to  deal with complaints about accessibility at polling stations. Closer  to  home,  not  long  ago,  Elections Ontario issued a draft Site Accessibility Standard. Returning officers  will use this  document  when they are selecting voting locations. The standard will eventually form part of  a broader  Elections Ontario Accessibility Plan. Physical access to  polling  stations  is  only one  aspect of  creating  barrier-free voting.  For example, voters  with  visual  impairments have long pointed out the  importance  of  being able to cast a vote in secret, without  assistance  from others, and in  a way that they can verify their choices. Without these three elements, their right to vote is compromised.

In  Ontario, there are considerable differences in the way municipalities run their elections, and hence the barriers  confronting voters are different depending on where they live. What drives various levels of  government  to turn their attention to these issues? In  part it is individuals like Peter Hughes who refuse to settle for second-class  treatment, but instead use the power of the law to assert their rights.  In  part, it  is growing awareness  that far too many barriers to full participation exist even in 2010 – an awareness  educators  have a long history of raising among the children they teach.