Identifying and Dismantling Barriers to Voting for People with Intellectual Disabilities

Tuesday, July 24
11:00 AM - 12:15 PM
Location: Grand Ballroom BC

At the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson said, “The vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different.” Yet over 50 years later, the Federal Voting Rights Act still permits states to deny the right to vote to people with “mental incapacity,” and the majority of states choose to exercise that power. Recent developments in the law of guardianship appear to be approaching a consensus that laws categorically disenfranchising those with intellectual disabilities, without considering the individual’s ability to comprehend the nature and act of voting, are neither constitutionally defensible, nor compatible with evolving trends toward empowering people with cognitive disabilities to the extent feasible. However, this emerging consensus is not fueling any widespread movement toward amending state constitutions or laws to remove legal impediments to voting. A number of other countries, such as Canada, Italy, Ireland, Israel, and Sweden, have eliminated any restrictions on voting based on mental incapacity. But such restrictions remain in most state laws and constitutions, including, according to a recent survey, seven state constitutions that retain outdated offensive language denying the right to vote to ‘idiots or insane’ persons.

Furthermore, informal barriers to voting persist, in the form of private actions that effectively disenfranchise people with intellectual disabilities. These barriers could include: ignorance of people administrating voter registration applications or voting officials, who can assume that an intellectual disability renders someone incapable of voting; false assumptions by caregivers, whether family or otherwise, about a person’s desire to or capacity to vote; failure to include education about voting in transition programs for young adults with intellectual disabilities; failure to include voting on the service plans; and the application of screening tools for cognitive capacity to vote developed for aging populations; or other unexamined barriers that people with disabilities face in an ableist society.

This session will begin with a brief explanation of the formal legal barriers to voting by people with cognitive disabilities, and ways of addressing these barriers. The focus of the session, however, will be a discussion of persisting informal gatekeeping mechanisms that pose barriers to voting, administered by voting officials and caregivers, family or otherwise. The presenters will share voting experiences from 18 L’Arche communities across the country, where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together as peers. These communities are located in Iowa, Virginia, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Kansas, Alabama, Massachusetts, Washington, Oregon, New York, California, Washington D.C., Georgia, and Missouri. With the aid of words, pictures and videos, the presenters will share the perspectives of people with intellectual disabilities on the significance of voting and the barriers they have encountered. The session will end with practical suggestions for how to overcome such barriers, with an eye toward facilitating the broadest possible participation of people with intellectual disabilities in the upcoming elections. Audience participation, in the form of sharing both negative experiences and practical solutions to barriers, will be an integral part of the session.

Elizabeth Schiltz

John D. Herrick Professor of Law
University of St. Thomas School of Law,Board of Directors, L'Arche U.S.A.

Elizabeth Schiltz is Herrick Professor of Law at the St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis, MN. She has published articles about disability rights, and helped create the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Disabilities disabilityjustice.org website. She serves on the Boards of L’Arche USA and the National Catholic Partnership on Disability.

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Faythe Aiken

Mission Implementation Specialist
Bethesda Lutheran Communities

Faythe Aiken is the Mission Implementation Specialist at Bethesda Lutheran Communities. Prior to her role at Bethesda, Faythe has worked as a policy and research analyst in multiple organizations. She has worked at the Human Services Research Institute, the Council on Quality and Leadership, Oregon's Office of Developmental Disabilities and PEACE (a parent advocacy organization in Southwest Washington). In these positions, she worked on data collection, analysis, and implementation of policies and work related to Medicaid funded services and supports to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Faythe is interested in work that promotes the self-direction and the full inclusion of people with disabilities in the community. She started her work in I/DD as a DSP in L'Arche community in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Faythe serves on the board for the Arc of Oregon and is the chair of the board for L'Arche Portland.

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