Change Inc. helps those with developmental disabilities get to the polls

Since February’s Developmental Disabilities Day during the legislative session in Annapolis, the staff at Change Inc. in Westminster has been working to educate those interested in politics and their right to vote.

The event hosted the Maryland Department of Disabilities and Department of Health, as well as legislative leaders and gubernatorial candidates, who spoke about issues that could affect Maryland residents with disabilities and why it is important to vote.

Now five Change clients will be eligible for early voting, and even more will be able to vote in the general election.

“The whole vision around Change is our belief in ‘life unlimited,’ ” Executive Director Mike Shriver said this week, “and that's our impact statement and our vision — to provide self-directed supports to people with disabilities so that they can live life unlimited.

“And what that means is helping them achieve those dreams and aspirations — things that they want to do in life, so they can enjoy themselves. Voting is one of many, many things.”

But voting is also one of the many things that people with developmental disabilities might have never dreamed they could do.

Prior to June 1, 2010, it was ruled that if a person was under guardianship, they surrendered their right to vote. According to the legislation enacted that year, though, the appointment of a guardian is not evidence of incompetency, and only a court can determine the ability of the person to exercise the right to vote.

A group at Change, called Voices of Change, has been spearheading civics education and encouraging Change’s clients to learn everything they can to make informed decisions and then vote.

Program coordinator Victoria Minkowski said the group then partnered with Disability Rights Maryland, who sent voting advocate Tracy Wright to a Voices meeting to break down everything from the difference between Democrats and Republicans to specific hot-button issues that can lean individuals toward joining one side or the other.

“[Voices of Change] made some really cool posters about why voting is important, early voting and about the program itself so people would know when to come,” Minkowski said this week. “And they came out, and Tracy came out and spoke to them, and it was really great.

“We had a great turnout,” she said. “We had about 30 individuals who attend Change come to the program and they heard her talk about why it’s important to vote, why it’s important specifically for them to vote, and what their rights are around voting, like: the ballot-marking device that's accessible to them that all polling places have to be [ADA] approved and accessible ... advocacy people there to help with the ballot, they can bring someone with them to help vote, they can bring their vote that they already decided so they don't forget.”

But although people with developmental disabilities can vote, there are more hurdles than just getting them excited to participate and into polling centers. Staff needed to ensure that they did not sway any of the clients’ decisions throughout the education process by sharing their own views.

We want them to think about “what matters to you, what are you willing to give on because this is more important?” Minkowski said. “Things like that — how to make a really good, informed choice about who you're voting for and who represents you best.

“A couple of them are like, ‘Who are you voting for?’ and we’re like, ‘I'm not sure yet,’ because we don't want to sway them in any way,” she said. “It’s very important to us to make them feel like they can make that decision on their own, and they are capable of making that decision.”

Early voting for the 2018 Maryland gubernatorial primary began Thursday, June 14. Two of Change’s clients got to exercise their right to vote, to make those decisions for themselves. Minkowski accompanied Jeanne Hannon and Bryan May to the Westminster Senior and Community Center to fill out their ballots and vote.

Hannon, who said she’s a proud Republican, voted for the first time Thursday. She said it’s important for her family to see her vote. She voted Republican “for her family and her future.”

May, who said he voted in the 1992 presidential election and is “kind of a veteran on this thing,” is a Democrat.

“I don’t want to vote for the wrong person,” he said. “I want to vote for a person who will do their duty … for the less fortunate and disabled.”

Equipped with a host of lessons about their voting rights from the event in Annapolis, both made decisions for themselves, independently.

Another issue that has come up has been that of identification cards.

“A fair amount of our individuals don't have ID cards,” she said, “and so we are having to get IDs — which requires their birth certificate and all that. But it’s something that should have been done at some point in their lives, and when they get these ID cards they are very excited.”

She said it gets the clients away from thinking just about their day and the small picture, and more about what they can actually do in the bigger picture and gives them a stronger sense of agency in their life.

“This is a real demonstration,” Shriver said. “These are men and women who are in their 30s and 40s, maybe 50s. So the whole notion of them voting when they turned 18 was really never even thought about because they have a disability, so why should they want to vote. ‘They can’t vote,’ that kind of thing.

“And so what we have to do now is do all of that work that … I did and Victoria did at age 18,” he said. “Because ... by that time I had my driver’s license or I had an ID and I could go do that. So it’s a real indicator of the shift, it’s a paradigm shift, in terms of the view that we have of a person’s right to: No. 1, exercise their right as a citizen to vote, and exercise their ability to live life unlimited, to do the things that they want to do.”

More information on the rights of voters with developmental disabilities can be found at elections.maryland.gov/voting/accessibility.html.

Times reporter Alex Mann contributed to this story.

jennifer.turiano@carrollcountytimes.com

410-857-7898

twitter.com/jturianoCCT

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