ANNAPOLIS – In the days leading up to Tuesday’s election, Maryland’s developmental disability advocacy groups are preparing to make sure their clients have a voice by finding ways to get them to the polls.
The Arc of Baltimore and Go-Getters Inc. are making sure they have staff and volunteers on hand for transporting people. For Go-Getters, transportation is especially crucial because of the rural areas where most of their clients live.
“Few of my clients have their own wheels, and public transportation is a novel idea, but it’s not possible in rural areas,” said Richard Bearman, executive director of Go-Getters, a psychiatric rehabilitation program for people with mental illnesses in counties along the Eastern Shore.
Go-Getters’ solution is to have a “fleet” of vans and cars to take people to the polls. And when they get back with their sticker saying they have voted, Bearman said members can put it on a card with their name for the chance to win one of three prizes the group will raffle off.
“I don’t care who they vote for, as long as they vote,” Bearman said.
Advocates have been doing other things to prepare their clients for the election.
“Our goal is to have people [with developmental disabilities] live independently and enjoy the benefits of the world the way the rest of us do,” Bearman said.
Many of the advocacy groups have had events to register their members to vote and practice using voting machines. Bearman said that about 90 percent of the Go-Getters members are registered to vote.
Some groups have also held or transported people to forums so that they could hear about the presidential candidates and their issues.
The Arc of Baltimore, which provides services for people with developmental disabilities, had members attend a voter registration drive in Cecil County where attendees were able to practice using voting machines like the ones in Baltimore County and Baltimore City.
The Arc has been having events over the last year related to voting, but the issue of transportation to the polls is the biggest obstacle for enabling a person with developmental disabilities to vote, said Jerry Bullinger, assistant executive director for The Arc of Baltimore.
One issue that some worry about is staff members helping people with developmental disabilities in the polling booths. Bullinger, for example, helped a man who had an unsteady hand use a touch screen on a recent election day, but he said The Arc’s policy is for staff members to be nonpartisan.
“If they are assisting someone to vote, our policy is strict neutrality because we are in a position to influence people if we so desire,” Bullinger said.
Another question Bullinger receives is how a person with developmental disabilities can vote, to which he answers that they learn about issues the same way everyone else does – through television, the radio and talking to the people around them.
Maryland State Law only prohibits the right to vote for a person under care or guardianship for mental disability, which Alyssa Fieo, director of legal advocacy for the Maryland Disability Law Center, said can keep some people from voting.
“We wish Maryland law clarified the issue of guardianship,” Fieo said. “It’s overly broad and excludes folks who might otherwise be capable to vote.”
Advocates say people with developmental disabilities need to be heard.
“If we want to count, we have to vote,” Bearman said.