Voters with disabilities call for more accessible polling locations

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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) In the last presidential election, about a third of voters with disabilities reported having trouble casting their ballots. It's a problem many of these voters are expected to face again this year.

It's been 26 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act went into effect, requiring the government to provide people with disabilities a full and equal opportunity to vote.

"It's still a work in progress, even though it's been passed," said Ian Watlington, a voter and activist for voters with disabilities.

Watlington has Cerebral Palsy and uses a wheelchair to get around. He says he still faces several obstacles when casting his ballot.

“It's absolutely frustrating. It's frustrating as a person with a disability because this is 2016," Watlington said. "These barriers can be locked doors to trash cans, blocking ways to doors that are not narrow enough, to machines that are broken down.”

J.O. Wilson Elementary School in Washington D.C. was used as a polling site in this year's primary. Although the school appears accessible, looks can be deceiving.

"Anyone who goes up the ramp, will soon find out there is no electric opening," Watlington said.

Watlington, making his way around the school, demonstrated the many barriers disabled voters may encounter.

"The accessible entrance opens outward, so I'm at the top of the ramp and I'm opening the door, and then it hits me," Watlington said. "There's a bar at the center of the door, and it's too narrow of an entryway."

A recent report published by a group called Disability Rights DC, found J.O. Wilson Elementary School operationally and structurally inaccessible. Unfortunately, polling locations like this exist all across the country.

“We see challenges everywhere, they may look a little bit different," said Michelle Bishop a Voting Rights Specialist at the National Disability Rights Network.

Bishop says election officials are often challenged in finding accessible polling locations in both urban and rural areas. Although, she notes rural areas have unique obstacles.

“In rural areas we see even more interesting locations used as polling places," Bishop said. "I've seen a barn on a grassy hillside with no path leading up to it, because that's what is available in that area.”

Now, Watlington is an advocate with the National Disability Rights Network, where he meets with lawmakers to raise awareness. While, he admits progress has been made, he wants to keep that momentum going forward.

“We haven't reached the ultimate goal yet of people having barrier free ability to cast their private ballot," Watlington said. "That should be our goal.”

Experts recommend voters with disabilities check out their polling site ahead of time to identify any barriers that could impact them. They also say to consider alternative options like curb side voting or casting an absentee ballot.

If you encounter any challenges at your polling location before or on Election Day, you can call the Election Day, you can call the Election Protection Hotline at 866-OURVOTE.