Voting with Confidence

Eileen Schofield shows off her I Voted sticker on election day. Photo by Mari Andrew

The line snaked out the door and spilled onto the street as chilly voters waited to cast their ballots in the District. L’Arche members Eileen Schofield and Megan Herron waited, too, anticipating the moment they would be able to scroll through the list of candidates and questions to make their selections.

While some people in the line grumbled, Eileen was too happy to let the cold weather or the wait bother her. “I was feeling great,” she said.

“On our way out of our polling place we started singing patriotic songs—loudly—for other voters in line,” Megan said. They let their voices be heard all the way up the street: God Bless America, This Land Is Your Land, and The Star-Spangled Banner.

Advocating for a person with a disability to vote doesn’t just mean taking him or her to the polls. It also entails researching the candidates before the big day.

Charles Clark, who lives at L’Arche 6th Street house in Arlington, said he read about the issues and then discussed them with his housemates. “I was very sure about my opinions. I knew exactly how I was going to vote.”

In addition to the president, Charles also voted for the Senate, the House, school board members, and amendments on the Virginia ballot.

He didn’t just have the president he had in mind when he voted, but the vice president and first family as well. Charles was looking for a candidate who was devoted, who would help people find employment, work with other countries, give aid during disasters, and would live up to his word.

“He needs to stay on top of it,” Eileen said, recognizing the enormity of the president’s job. When voting for the nation’s leader her top priorities included caring for the poor. “It would be good if people weren’t living on the streets. That’s something I feel strongly about.”

Until recently, polling places were often inaccessible for people with disabilities. Many precincts were in church basements, upstairs social halls, or in public buildings without elevators or where the doors were too small for a wheelchair to fit. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 mandated that all polling places be accessible and have an accessible private voting booth.

“We’ve come a long way with technology,” Charles said with a laugh. The machine he used to vote was “just like a computer.”

If people with disabilities were encouraged to vote at the rate of those without disabilities, there would be about 10 million more votes counted in each presidential election. Every vote cast by a person with a disability will impact the community’s political muscle. Advocacy groups are working hard to make voting easier for people with disabilities–improving the machines to include visuals, simple language, and oral instructions. These changes wouldn’t just make the voting process less challenging, but also send the crucial message to people with disabilities that they are welcome to speak in the political arena and make choices that will affect them.

“It made me feel really happy to vote,” Eileen said. “I made a difference.” She proudly wore her I Voted sticker on her coat for the rest of the afternoon, announcing to co-workers and passersby that she did her civic duty of the day.

“It was a surprise to get a sticker. It made me feel happy to show everyone I voted,” she said with a thumbs up and a gratified smile.

Naturally, not everyone in the L’Arche community and across the country has the same political views, but Eileen believes everyone should vote. “If you don’t vote, how are you going to know what’s happening in the world and in DC?” she asked.

Charles agrees with her sentiment. Voting makes people feel important and good about themselves and he’s “glad that all people can vote now, men and women and everybody.”

He, for one, stayed up until midnight waiting for the election results. “I was so excited, I wasn’t even tired,” he said.

Now that President Obama has been re-elected, Charles and Eileen had some advice for him.

“He should remember to stay on task,” offered Eileen.

Charles’ advice comes straight from his own personal practice of working a room: “When Obama goes out to visit people, even if it’s crowded, he should take the time to shake everyone’s hand.”

-Mari Andrew joined the L’Arche community in April 2012. She serves as the development associate/volunteer coordinator.