TORONTO – As Ontario gets set to elect a new government, some disabled voters say accommodations put in place to allow them to cast their ballots independently and privately are not working as intended.
People with visual, mobility and hearing impairments in at least five different ridings said they had issues with Elections Ontario’s accessibility measures at returning offices, where they can vote until 6 p.m. Wednesday.
They say elections workers were helpful and respectful, but not always trained on accessible voting options and sometimes did not offer them or didn’t readily know how to make them available.
In some cases, they also say accessible voting machines designed to help them vote did not work as advertised and they were unable to keep their ballots private.
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Elections Ontario is apologizing to anyone who encountered a systemic barrier while voting and urges anyone affected to share their experience so improvements can be made.
Spokeswoman Jessica Pellerin says Elections Ontario has taken steps to improve accessibility since accessible voting machines first became available in 2011, and now also pays for deaf or hard-of-hearing voters to have a sign language interpreter. Home visits can also be arranged for those who cannot get to the polls.
Tim Nolan, who is legally blind, wasn’t aware of the accessible voting machines or offered an opportunity to use them. He said the issues experienced by some disabled voters show they cannot count on the same access to secure, independent voting their able-bodied peers enjoy.
“That’s the gap in the whole democratic system,” he said.
“While everybody else who doesn’t have a disability has both the right and privilege, persons with disabilities do not get the privilege.”
Accessible voting machines are located at each returning office, plus 51 satellite offices until the day before the election, but will not be available at polling stations on election day. Elections Ontario says other forms of accommodations will be available at general polling stations, such as paper templates to guide visually impaired voters in casting ballots.
The province’s 175 accessible voting machines use three distinct interfaces.
An audio tactile controller helps visually impaired voters by reading the names of candidates aloud and permitting voters to press buttons to make selections. Voters with mobility limitations can use paddles they manipulate with hands, feet or elbows, or use a sip-and-puff interface that sends signals when a voter inhales or exhales through a straw.
Nolan and his wife Kim, who has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair, said they had to rely on assistance from election workers to vote.
Nolan said an employee read him the list of candidates and helped insert his ballot in a paper template containing holes where voters mark their choices. He said he made his selection by memorizing the candidate list, then counting down the appropriate number of lines and marking an X, adding that the elections worker ultimately saw his ballot. His wife said she verbally communicated her choice to a staff member.
One wheelchair user in the Greater Toronto Area said neither the paddle nor the sip-and-puff interface were working when she went to vote, adding she had a companion input her choices for her using the audio tactile option. She said staff did their best to address problems, but said they told her they only received a brief demonstration of how the machine worked.
Pellerin said Elections Ontario has a 30-minute video on assistive voting technology and requires a designated staff person from the 124 returning offices to attend a mandatory training session. That person then schedules training with their staff and keeps a manual on hand for reference.
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Elections Ontario wants to hear from those who encountered issues, Pellerin said.
“The integrity and accessibility of the voting process is very important,” she said. “We welcome any and all feedback that electors are able to provide, as this does inform how we either maintain or change our processes.”
David Lepofsky reached out after voting in Toronto and encountering problems.
The totally blind disability rights advocate said his polling station didn’t have braille versions of some forms he was asked to sign and said there were problems verifying the accuracy of his ballot before it was cast. While he was ultimately able to complete this step, he said he knows of other instances where blind voters had to cast votes without being able to check their ballot was marked properly.
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In North Bay, Ont., Penny Leclair, who is deaf-blind and uses a hearing implant, said she tried unsuccessfully to use the audio-tactile interface.
She said brief blocks of text read out by the machines do not allow users like her enough time to position headphones appropriately and make adjustments to reading speed and volume levels. She called on Elections Ontario to implement an option that would see machines read out an uninterrupted block of text that deaf people could use as a test before beginning the voting process.
“Over the years we’ve advocated for independent voting,” Leclair said of the disabled community. “We still don’t have it completely.”