The following is the first in a series of columns in which Rikki Poynter will shed light on barriers faced by deaf people like herself in everyday life. Her first column, published on Election Day, describes the struggles of voting while deaf.
I’ve been voting in United States elections since Barack Obama’s second run in 2012. Every time I’ve voted since, it’s always been on Election Day due to the fact that I’m strangely paranoid that any vote done during early voting won’t count for whatever reason or get lost. But for 2020, I decided to vote early as I had grown more and more impatient with how stressful this election is compared to previous ones.
As a deaf person, my voting experiences are different from hearing people’s. Add COVID-19 into the equation and things get even more complicated.
Since this was my first time voting early, I had no idea what to expect. Was it done on paper like before? Are we using computers? I’ve worked with computers for over a decade at home, but I didn’t know what the electronics were like at voting sites. I hoped I’d be able to get some sort of efficient accommodation when I arrived but, unfortunately, some things were a bit of a struggle.
To try to ease the process, I wore my brand new shirt from SignVote, which provides resources for deaf voters. The shirt itself was quite straightforward; it read, “Deaf Voter” in big letters. I hoped it would catch someone’s attention, however, I also sign that I’m deaf whenever I approach anyone.
When I went to the desk, I handed over my ID so the person would have my name (because the second I use my voice, hearing people will think I’m actually hearing and start speaking). The first time she started to make conversation, she spoke into her mask. Mistake number one. But then she took a piece of paper and we wrote back and forth.
It took about five minutes for me to give the basic info: my address, confirmation that I am a U.S. citizen, etc. I thought that was weird, as I noticed two other people that arrived after me had already left the machines. It finally dawned on me that she was registering me, someone who was already registered to vote. Because I handed over my ID, she thought I wasn’t registered and didn’t think to look me up first.
This was an experience that the woman and I chuckled at, and she was very nice throughout the five minutes, but it was something that went on for far too long all because of communication barriers.
The more difficult struggle came when I was sent to the machines to meet another woman. This woman saw the exchange of signing, gesturing, and writing between myself and the other woman, but refused to be accommodating. Despite my saying I had no idea what she was saying through her mask, and asked her to write the directions down, she continued to talk through her mask as if I was able to hear and understand everything she said.
I had questions about how the results were going to be sent in, as I had heard different things from different people. It was my understanding that someone gave you a card to put inside and the results would be scanned onto it. The machine itself said a card needed to be inserted, but nobody gave me any sort of card. I asked the woman about it and all she did was talk into her mask again. No matter how many times I asked her to write what she was saying down, she wouldn’t, and she eventually walked away and left me on my own.
Fortunately, I was eventually able to figure it out on my own. The ballot ended up being printed on paper out of the machine (the exact opposite of what the directions on the machine said, strangely enough), and I was able to submit my ballot into the other machine and make my way out of the building.
Politics in general can be confusing and inaccessible to deaf people and it shouldn’t be, especially during an election. With all the confusion around absentee ballots, COVID-19 regulations for in-person voting and other issues exclusive to this year, there’s no reason to add more confusion for the more than 48 million deaf and hard-of-hearing people like myself living in the United States. Voter access means different things to different people, and we must do better.
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