Oct 26, 2011

Getting Out the (Disabled) Vote The Arc helps clients exercise their constitutional right

Jenny Joslyn is a model citizen: a tax-paying, working-class 30-something woman who embraces her right to engage politically. She has voted in every election since her 18th birthday. She is also intellectually disabled, one of thousands of Idahoans who require assistance for life skills. But it is her citizenship that she said defines her on Election Day.

"I think it's important for everybody to vote," said Joslyn. "I would ask anyone why they don't vote."

Her voting record is the very definition of independence, casting votes in previous elections for presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

"I really liked Obama's ideas in 2008," said Joslyn. "I think he's doing OK, but I know that the economy is very difficult for him right now."

Like many American voters, the economy is a touchstone issue for Joslyn. She works four days a week, cleaning rooms at the Super 8 Hotel near the Boise Airport. She secured the job through The Arc, which has assisted thousands of the disabled since 1956.

"We serve approximately 600 individuals a year," said Nicole Lang, who has worked at the Boise-based Arc for 14 years, the past five as its director of programs. "Our current participants are as young as 18 and as old as 75."

Through her years of overseeing programs, including developmental therapy and vocational training, Lang has seen countless instances of challenge and success, but nothing surprised her more than what occurred during the 2008 presidential election.

"It was unlike anything I had experienced before. It was amazing," said Lang. "The best example I can give you is a 45-year-old woman with a disability who comes to The Arc on a regular basis. She comes from a very strict family with very strict political beliefs. Well, she wanted to vote for a candidate her family didn't approve of. At times, she ended up in tears after some pretty emotional political debates. She did her best to understand the issues and she made her choice. Her family certainly didn't agree with her, but her candidate won. It was the most empowering thing I've ever seen."

That woman wasn't alone. In fact, according to the U.S. Census, more disabled adults participated in the 2008 presidential election than any time in the nation's history.

"I was at the national Arc convention a couple of weeks ago, and this was a very hot topic," said Lang. "In 2008, 14.9 million people with disabilities voted--more than 3.9 million more than had voted in the previous presidential election."

For Lang and her colleagues, the message was clear.

"We've got to make sure people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are aware that, No. 1, they have a right to vote," said Lang. "We need to show them how to register and explain their rights."

The law is clear--the United States Constitution and the Americans with Disabilities Act guarantees a person with a mental disability the right to vote. That person can ask for help from any person he or she chooses. While some states have struggled with the issue when courts have tried to rule that a person is not competent to vote, Idaho has never had any such challenge. In fact, if a state chooses to impose a voter-competence requirement, that requirement must be applied to all voters. It cannot single out a particular group of voters, such as people who are the subject of guardianship proceedings.

Marjorie Cashbaugh requires guardianship. Due to her diagnoses of mental retardation and cerebral palsy, she depends primarily on her mother. But Marjorie is not to be underestimated.

"I'm getting to be pretty good at my math, and my cooking is good, too," said Cashbaugh, 26, who has been going to The Arc for two years, working on her life skills.

"I'm not registered to vote at the moment but I really want to do it," said Cashbaugh. "I think I'm going to ask the staff here [at The Arc] to help me. I've been talking to a number of my friends and my mother about the issues. I have a lot of friends who have disabilities and they need to be respected. They need an advocate."

Robert Burge has several advocates at The Arc. The 44-year-old suffered a severe brain injury when he was hit by a truck at the age of 4. Today, he is a janitor for three businesses: The Arc, American Linen Supply, and The Boys and Girls Clubs. Burge is a gentle giant, with a football-player-size build and an ear-to-ear smile.

Three years ago, Burge told the staff at The Arc that he was interested in voting.

"They told me how to vote but they didn't tell me who to vote for," said Burge, who admitted that the whole process was a challenge. "It was really difficult for me to see who to vote for, getting to the voting place and signing all the papers. But I'm really glad I did it."

Lang said coaching someone with a disability on how the electoral process works can't be confused with coaching them on how to vote.

"We're going to continue to do this very carefully," said Lang. "It's a very delicate balance, but we're going to do the best we can."