Waiter with one eye claims discrimination

That’s a whole lotta eyeballs there looking for a home. (photo by Chuck Gullett.)

Now, here’s a new one for you.

A waiter in Mississippi was fired for refusing to wear his fake eye at work. Discrimination? I dunno. But this story strikes close to home.

Eye surgeons did all they could to restore my vision when retinopathy set in thirty years ago. One of my eyes is still intact, but the other one shrunk so much from the trauma of all those surgeries that I can’t hold that eyelid open. I wear a prosthesis in that eye.

Jared Ellis, a married father of two children, lost an eye five years ago in an accident. He told a reporter at news station WREG in Mississippi that he wore a prosthetic eye for a while, but it was so uncomfortable that it gave him headaches. Eventually he decided not to wear it at all.

I still remember the first time an oclularist (that’s what specialists who make fake eyes are called) spread open the lids to my poor shrunken eye and plopped the prosthesis in. “Okay,” she said. I could hear her wiping her hands on a paper towel. “It’s in.”

Intellectually I knew all along that the prosthesis was not meant to improve my eyesight. It was meant to improve my looks. Subconsciously, though, I must have thought this eyepiece was going to give me sight. It felt so much like the contact lenses I used to wear that for one split-second I expected to open my eyes, look in a mirror and see what I looked like with this new eye. “It looks great!” the ocularist exclaimed with pride. I faked a smile.

The eyepiece felt weird at first, as if, well, as if there was something in my eye. I’ve become used to it now. It only bothers me when dust or grit gets in there. If that happens, I take it out, clean it with regular hand soap and water, and plop it back in. I try not to do this in public restrooms, though!

Last month Ellis told reporters he didn’t wear a prosthetic eye or eye patch when he interviewed for the restaurant job or at any time he worked there. He said there’d been no mention of complaints from customers about him, and that he enjoyed his work.

A month into the job, however, a manager took Ellis aside and told him the restaurant owners wanted him either to wear a prosthetic or an eyepatch. Ellis quit on the spot, claiming discrimination.

As for me, of course it was crazy for me to ever think the fake eye would restore my vision. Not so crazy to think the fake eye would help restore my confidence. My fake eye is pretty realistic. It helps people feel more comfortable talking with me and listening to what I’m saying. With my fake eye in, it can appear I’m looking at people as they talk. They open themselves up, rather than pre-occupy themselves with my blindness. In turn, so do I.

So, what’s your guess? Which one is fake? (photo by Chuck Gullett)

If you can forgive the blind puns here, it’s pretty interesting to look at this from a different point of view. Ellis says he’d like to use his restaurant experience to send a message to others in his shoes. “It’s about everybody who’s ever looked in the mirror or had somebody tell them there’s something wrong with the way they look,” he said in the WREG report. “There’s nothing wrong with you. You are beautiful. Don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise.”

 

A Heartfelt Year-End Thanks & Gratitude from Easterseals CEO

Randy Rutta talking to a little girl at an Eatser Seals center

Randy Rutta at an Easter Seals center

We at Eastereals have a lot to be grateful for this year … our Easterseals families, our friends, countless donors and volunteers, our staff, our advocacy and many corporate and community partners. And what better time to pause for a moment, and widely express our thanks, than during this holiday season.

Starting on #GivingTuesday, Easterseals launched its month of gratitude, with many of our clients stepping up to share their stories and literally take over our social media feeds. Take a look. We’re getting a heartfelt response from so many, and I thought I’d join in and offer up my own musings — and gratitude — from life on the inside of this 100-year-young heritage brand.

2016 was a landmark year for Easterseals. We introduced our new brand, along with other exciting changes; we celebrated the achievements of children and adults at our 75 Easterseals across the country, and we forged and fostered incredible partnerships that helped us advance our purpose to change the way the world defines and views disabilities. Here, our team has captured 16 of our top moments, in no particularly order.

I am so proud of each and every success this year, and owe a debt of gratitude to all of our friends who help make those moments, and so many more, a reality. Generous gifts — whether large or small, tried and true, or even groundbreaking in their unique approach to philanthropy – from millions of people each year drive Easterseals to make a profound, positive difference in people’s lives everyday.

I would, however, like to add a 17th moment to that list for good measure, acknowledging a game-changing social investment and effort to usher in a new Easterseals for the 21st century. Just two years from now, Easterseals will celebrate its centennial anniversary. In that lead up, Easterseals is launching a comprehensive strategic planning initiative to set far-reaching goals and a plan to achieve a bold vision for people with disabilities.

I am grateful to our supporters who make these types of efforts possible. In particular, I greatly appreciate the support of the George and Betty Harbaugh Foundation for expanding access to essential services and supports to our nation’s veterans and their families, and in 2016, making a Program-Related Investment loan to significantly strengthen our organization’s capacity to advance innovation, excellence and growth of services for people with disabilities and their families.

Easterseals recently launched a comprehensive, strategic transformation project. The path forward will engage all of Easterseals decision-makers and stakeholders — 33,000 staff, 42,000 volunteers, national/community partners, and 1.5 million people and families served this year alone. Together, with a nationally-recognized expert advisor, we’re crafting a compelling 21st century vision to affect change and positively impact exponentially more people’s lives.

It is partnerships and innovative support, like this, that make all the difference. And for that, I am forever grateful.

 

Six Ways Teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Learning Disabilities Can Help Themselves Succeed

Guest blogger Kelly Hutchins shares more tips for young people with Autism in today’s post, specifically those who find themselves navigating high school.  Read her first post as well.

success graphicSpeaking up for yourself and making your needs known can be terrifying, but it is something you are going to need to do throughout your life. Debbie Muentnich-Hayes is a Special Ed teacher from Joliet, Illinois. She has been working with young people for over 20 years. We sat down together to brainstorm six ways for teens to advocate for themselves.

Know Your Case Manager

Your case manager is the person who helps write your Individualized Education Program (IEP), and his or her job is to advocate for your needs. If you don’t know who your case manager is, go to the special education office to find out. It is important to meet periodically with your case manager so you can communicate to them exactly what you need to succeed academically. Debbie put it best saying: “Don’t try to handle it all by yourself, you don’t have to go it alone. There are many adults in your school who have studied to be able to help you get the most from your education. Special education staff have a passion to make sure you receive the education accommodations you are entitled to by law.”

Know What Accommodations are Available

There are lots of different accommodations that may help you in school. Here are a few accommodations that might be worth exploring further:

  • Seating at the front of the classroom
  • Extended time for assignments and tests
  • Guided notes (usually a handout where the teacher has outlined the lecture, but has left areas blank for the key concepts, facts, and figures for you to fill in) if you have trouble with note-taking
  • Using a computer or tablet to take notes in class
  • Alternate testing locations
  • Having someone read the test questions out loud for you

Attend Your IEP meetings

Your IEP is what documents your accommodations and education plan. Every year you have an IEP meeting that determines what will be written into your IEP. It is important to attend your IEP meetings because they are a key space for self-advocacy. You get to talk face-to-face with all the people who are making decisions that affect your experience in high school. It is not unusual for your case manager, your guidance counselor, your parents, and your school social worker to all attend.  If the school year is already underway, but your accommodations aren’t working, you can ask your case manager for an IEP meeting. If you do not have an IEP, but think you need one, you can ask your guidance counselor about exploring your options.

Know Your Learning Style, and be Honest With Those Trying to Help You

Your learning style is the way in which you learn best. If you aren’t sure about your learning style, you can take a learning style inventory. You can either google it yourself (just search “learning style inventory”) and take a few quizzes, or you can ask your social worker/therapist to help you figure out your specific learning style. You might also understand a lot of your strengths and weaknesses just based on experience.

It is vital for you to be honest with yourself and others about your strengths and weaknesses. It might be embarrassing to admit that you find some things difficult, but it will make your life so much easier. It is crucial that you honestly communicate with teachers, parents, guidance counselors, therapists, social workers and case managers. Not only do these people want to help you, but it is their job to do so.

Develop Successful Strategies for Studying and Homework

There are a lot of ways you can help yourself study outside of school. Your teachers, case manager, and therapist or social worker can help you find what works for you.  Here are some of our favorite ideas:

  • Using audio books if you are an auditory learner
  • Have an accountability partner for study time
  • Set up a good study routine and location
  • Noise cancelling headphones or white noise machine (music is usually too distracting)
  • Make sure to allocate enough time to study, because it will probably take you longer. This is not because you are less intelligent, but because American school systems are designed for students without learning disabilities

Take Care of Your Mental Health

Consider going to therapy or seeing a school social worker. Your case manager or guidance counselor can set you up with a social worker in school. Social workers and therapists are there to help you with all aspects of life, and will be a huge advocate for you in school. Sessions with them are safe spaces to process your feelings. The only time a social worker or therapist will break confidentiality is if you are a threat to yourself or others. In that situation they are required by law to break confidentiality in order to insure your safety.

If you are prescribed medication, take it exactly as directed. For the medication to work properly, you must follow your doctor’s instructions. Side effects in the first couple weeks of starting a new medication are normal, but if they persist or make life unmanageable, talk to your doctor. Do not stop taking any medication before consulting your doctor. Going off medication without medical supervision can be very dangerous. If you have trouble remembering to take your medication, try setting alarms on your phone and purchasing a weekly pill case, which lets you easily see if you missed a dose.

 

Disability and Dating: How to Find Love While Being True to Yourself

On tonight’s all new episode of ABC’s Speechless, the entire DiMeo family helps JJ romance a girl at school.  Our own Erin Hawley explains that finding the right partner isn’t easy, and it can be especially hard when you have a disability.  Still, that’s no reason to give up! Watch the episode at 8:30|7:30c on ABC. 

By: Erin Hawley

Finding a partner can be difficult for anyone, but for people with disabilities, there are extra barriers in place. Many believe the biggest barriers stem from society’s often-skewed views of our capabilities and what it means to be disabled. The stereotype is one of loneliness; we don’t even have friends, except when an abled person takes us under their wing as a charity case. Many are shocked to learn that people with disabilities have active social lives and romantic relationships, including sexual ones – gasp!

Erin and her boyfriend

Erin and her boyfriend

There are limited resources for people with disabilities when it comes to dating and relationships, including sexual and reproductive health. While all disabilities are unique, we also have a common understanding of what it’s like to navigate the world as a person with a disability. To me, it’s glaringly problematic that supports for us are absent, or buried under paperwork and abandoned websites.

The unfortunate result of this, of people automatically putting you in the “undateable” category because of your bodily difference, is that you may start believing it yourself. If you’re like me, you might begin to internalize the negative expectations that some doctors, teachers, parents, and others project onto you. I’m not going to lie – undoing that internalized ableism and recognizing your own ability to find love is difficult; but for me, that confidence was necessary.

Finding someone who doesn’t instantly write you off is like searching for the Holy Grail. Even on dating sites geared specifically toward people with disabilities, that baggage from always being told we were less than our abled peers clouds our relationships with each other. That baggage is so heavy that it even follows you long after you enter a relationship.

But I took charge of my love life. I recognized those negative thoughts that told me no one would find me desirable; I let them pass through me, and pressed on steadfastly. I made dating profiles, I chatted with tons of guys – many who fell off the face of the earth when they realized how disabled I was. I wasn’t a model who just happened to sit down a lot. I need specific medical care, help with bathroom stuff, assistance dressing, eating, and keeping my airway open. I sit sideways from scoliosis and have frequent back pain. My limbs are contracted, so I have limited range of motion.

People found me physically attractive all the time (because I am gorgeous and photograph damn well), but they didn’t want to “deal” with the other stuff. I could write a book about all the creepy, negative e-mails I’ve received while dating – everything from first messages of “hi, can you have sex?” or “will you let me take care of you?” to “Sorry, I’m not interested. You should go on a dating site for your kind.” If you are disabled and just venturing into the online dating world, expect this – a lot. Or expect a low response rate; honestly, I prefer that to the skeevy messages.

Cookies with "Love" spelled out in icingAt this point, you may be wondering how I found my boyfriend, since I’ve painted online dating as a barren hellscape. The truth is, he found me when I wasn’t looking. After two failed, long-term relationships and a slew of terrible dates following, I was ready for a break. I needed to find my inner peace I knew was there, that I owned. I hate that my relationships held such power over me, emotionally; so I made an effort to stop searching and focus on my mental health. “No one will love you if you don’t love yourself” always seemed like a cheesy, dismissive quote, but it wasn’t until I lost myself that I realized how true it is.

One lazy afternoon, a guy from a dating site sent me a message after recognizing me in a Twitter chat about tabletop gaming. Two weeks go by, and we have our first date. Fast-forward almost two years later, and here we are in a healthy relationship based on mutual respect, honesty, support, and understanding. My disability is an integral part of my identity, and he accepts and loves that about me, as I accept and love him.

Dating is treacherous. It makes you feel vulnerable, and constantly tests your inner strength. You will get your heart broken in ways you never thought possible (or you could be the luckiest person ever – in which case, rock on). Remember to love yourself first, because that love is something they can’t take away from you. And if you ever feel like no one would want to date you because of your disabilities, silence that beast – it’s lying.

 

Thankful for us, the U.S.

Ben Trockman

Ben Trockman

During this time of great constitutional debate and discussion within our country, I’m reminded of my gratitude for the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. It reads:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Unlike people in many other countries in the world, citizens of the United States are granted the freedom to exercise free speech. Why is this particularly important to me, specifically in regard to disability inclusion? Let’s think back 100 years ago. My grandmother tells me the story of my great-grandfather Jimmy, who had polio and attended high school in the 1910s. Prior to Jimmy’s graduation, the principal of the school told my great-grandfather and his parents that they should “find their son a job in a back room where no one could see him.” This was the reality people with disabilities were facing in the early 20th century; a principal encouraging parents to “hide” their child from the world.

Now lets fast forward to the “Crawl on Capitol Hill,” prior to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. Hundreds of passionate disability advocates peacefully protested by abandoning their wheelchairs and walkers, and pulling their “disabled” bodies up the steps on Capitol Hill.

This vivid act of “free speech and/or peaceful assembly” led to unprecedented awareness of disability issues. The peaceful protest transformed the thinking of our country — and the leaders of our country — regarding people with disabilities. The ADA was signed months later in 1990 and has been a landmark piece of legislation for the disability community ever since.

Disable demonstrators crawl the Capitol steps. Photo: Action for Access, Tom Olin

Demonstrators with disabilities crawl the Capitol steps. Photo: Action for Access, Tom Olin

The purpose of this blog post is not to concentrate on one specific incident, but to look back, reflect and appreciate the rights that we have as United States citizens to express our passions, thoughts, ideas and concerns whether we express them by speaking, blogging, tweeting, publishing YouTube videos, or Facebook.

Without the ability to speak, assemble, protest and advocate, we may not have made it to a time where I (a 28-year-old quadriplegic) could have a full-time position at Old National Bank, one of the greatest employers in the tri-state, constantly speaking in the community, and feeling as though my opinions are always important. Without the First Amendment, I may not have had the opportunity to be employed. I may not have had the opportunity to advocate. I may not have had the opportunity to graduate.

Who knows?

One thing I do know is that we live in the greatest country in the world, where we have the opportunity to, in the words of James Dean, “dream as if you’ll live forever, live as if you’ll die today.”

For that, I am grateful.

 

Grateful for Goalball

I am pleased to introduce Sean Edwards as a guest blogger today. After a retinal detachment compromised the vision in his right eye when he was nine years old, doctors prohibited him from participating in sports or any other physical activity that might cause another detachment. A decade later, Sean is attending Purdue University and participates in Goalball, a sport he is grateful for. Here’s his post.

by Sean Edwards

Goal Ball Game

Erik Rodriguez of the Indy Pendants throwing the ball down the middle of the court.

I never really found sports interesting as a kid. I could watch football here and there if family was watching it. My dad even got me into watching hockey when I was 15 or so. But I couldn’t play those sports. Ha, me try to see a small, icy rubber disk that can be launched around a rink at more than 90 miles an hour? Good luck.

The script sort of flipped my junior year of high school. A resource teacher that year went out of his way to show me this unique sport made for people with a vision disability and assured me I’d be able to participate. Players all wear blindfolds, and the ball has bells inside to hear where it’s coming from. My resource teacher went on and on, and when he finally finished explaining I had only one question: what’s this game called?

Goalball.

Created after World War II as a rehabilitation method for veterans who had lost their sight in combat, Goalball is a 3-on-3 team sport that combines an offense like bowling with a defense of soccer or hockey. Teams of blindfolded players take turns rolling a hard-rubber bell-filled ball down the court at their opponents. When defending, a team will have to listen for where the ball is coming from and dive out to block the ball with their body, preventing it from entering their goal. The team with the most goals at the end of the 24-minute game wins.

We started a Goalball club at my high school and I began exploring various strategies. I learned that playing proper defense limited chances of taking a hit to the head. It didn’t take long for me to discover I did in fact have a competitive fire buried inside me.

And now I’d found a way to release it.

Since graduating from high school I’ve been attending Purdue University, and during my sophomore year at college it occurred to me that hey, we managed to create a Goalball club at Carmel High School. Let’s do it at Purdue, too.

On April 23rd, 2016, the newly-founded Purdue Goalball organization hosted its First Annual Regional Goalball Tournament. Six teams from various cities, including Indianapolis, Chicago, Detroit, and even Cincinnati, traveled to compete in West Lafayette. I witnessed first-hand what that tournament meant to the athletes who participated. They weren’t simply enjoying a chance to get physical activity — they were grateful for the opportunity to compete.

It was on that day last April that I knew. This was it, this was what I was looking for all along. I switched my major to Sociology with a minor in Disability Studies. My goal is to someday work towards raising awareness of adaptive sports and make more options and opportunities available for athletes with disabilities to participate in them. With that spirit in mind, we’re planning to host our second Goalball tournament at Purdue in April 2017.

Sometimes in life, you don’t really know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. And other times, you don’t really know what you could have until it falls right into your lap. I’m honestly grateful to have learned about Goalball. Not only do I appreciate it for giving me the chance to compete, but it has opened up my mind to who I want to be.

 

Grateful…for autism?

FamilyIt has been eight years since we started our amazing journey with Scottie as the Easterseals 2008 National Child Representative. Time really gets away from us, but we frequently talk about the trips that we took and the amazing opportunities we had to meet and speak to so many folks about what Easterseals and autism have meant in our lives. We occasionally still get a chance to speak at some Easterseals events, and it is always an honor.

This month, as we prepare for another Thanksgiving Day together as a family, I am grateful for my busy family, our health and all the help, love, hope and opportunity that Easterseals has brought into our lives.

This time of year, I find myself reflecting on what I am most grateful for. I have so many things in my life that have truly blessed me. One of the most amazing blessings? Having an autistic son.

Now, I can’t say that I’ve always felt that way. Scottie is a teenager now and prefers being called Scott — he doesn’t mind “Scottie,” but he’s grown up! As the years passed since that initial diagnosis in 2002, I’ve grown more and more thankful for him and his diagnosis.

Many would think that I’m crazy — and maybe I am a bit, but he is such a tremendous joy to me and our entire family. He has taught me not to take the little things in life for granted, and by watching him grow and learn, I have learned so very much.

It’s simply amazing.

Sometimes, I wonder what life without him would be like, or even life without him being autistic, and I cannot imagine it. At this point I don’t even want to. I wouldn’t change a thing about him even if I could.

Being selected as the Easterseals 2008 National Child Representative not only gave a lot more people an opportunity to know and love our wonderful son Scott when he was still a little boy, but it gave us
— as a family — a chance to give back. I currently serve as the chairperson of our local Easterseals board of directors — we give back to Easterseals as an organization because they have given us more than words could ever express.

Staying involved with Easterseals also gives us a chance to offer hope to other families facing the darkness of autism. I hope that somehow, by seeing and hearing our story, there will again be light.

So, as we gather to celebrate this Thanksgiving, I will give thanks for Scott and his sisters, Sarah and Carly, as well as my husband Shannon and all of our extended family — including our wonderful Easterseals family.

 

Our new Illinois senator uses a wheelchair

WheelchairThe 2016 presidential election is getting so much attention that some of the more interesting state and local races seem to be somewhat overlooked. The Senatorial race here in Illinois is a good example. The votes have been counted, and our next senator from Illinois will use a wheelchair.

Democratic Senate candidate Rep. Tammy Duckworth served in Iraq and lost both legs when a rocket-propelled grenade struck the helicopter she was co-piloting in 2004. After her victory over incumbent Senator Mark S. Kirk in yesterday’s election, Tammy Duckworth will be only the second woman to serve as senator of Illinois.

An article in the Chicago Tribune during tammy Duckworth’s campaign pointed out that running a Senate campaign involves lots of travel and complicated logistics. From the article:

Duckworth said she and her staff have a pre-event checklist to make sure the site is up to their standards — and that means making sure even the bathrooms are wheelchair accessible.

“I don’t go to any place that isn’t accessible even though I have artificial legs that I can walk in; it’s on principle,” she said. “If someone in a wheelchair can’t get in it, I’m not going to do an event there because just because I can get in there doesn’t mean somebody else can.”

The article said Duckworth often heard from voters who question her ability to serve. A question about using a wheelchair in public during the campaign came up when she first ran for Congress. “I’m not ashamed I’m in a wheelchair. I earned this wheelchair,” she said. “I’ve always insisted it’s not something that we hide.”

Congratulations to Tammy Duckworth — we look forward to having someone like you represent us in the U.S. Senate in 2017.

 

Chance the Rapper wants us to vote: What to do if you have any problems tomorrow

Chance the Rapper’s giving a free outdoor concert later this afternoon here in Chicago along with Twin Peaks, Malcolm London, and Chance’s brother Taylor Bennett. It’s for a good cause: Chance got these acts together to remind people to vote Tuesday, if they haven’t already. I’m a fan of Chance the Rapper, and I’m a fan of voting. I’ll be there.

Chance is on the GOTV case.

Chance is on the GOTV case.

I wrote a post here last week about times I’ve had problems accessing the talking voting machines at our local polling place in the past, and though I’m hoping for the best tomorrow, I’ll be heading to the booth armed with special phone numbers just in case.  Easterseals has put together a comprehensive resource for people with disabilities to use on election day, which includes a wallet card with important numbers on it for you to take with you to the polls. Take a look.

These are some of the hotlines that’ll be ready to help people with disabilities who have problems voting:

  • U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Voting Section: for complaints related to ballot access, call 800-253-3931. TTY: 877-267-8971
  • Lawyers’ Committee on Civil Rights under Law Election Protection Hotline: For help with disability/access issues, call 866-OURVOTE (866.6878683).

Here in Illinois, Equip for Equality will have advocates available by telephone to answer questions about any voting problem people with disabilities might experience. You can call them when the polls are open tomorrow at 800.537.2632, or TTY at 800.610.2779.

In some previous elections my issue with the voting machine couldn’t be resolved, and my husband, who can see, had to sign an affidavit to be able to help me with a written ballot. Voting specialists on these hotlines recorded details and referred my issue “to the proper authorities for follow-up action.”

My hope is that the follow-up worked, and that things go smoothly tomorrow. Not only for me, but for all of us at the polling places. And if not, it is reassuring to know there are people on these hotlines ready to help.

 

Blind, but entitled to cast a ballot — op-ed piece in the New York Daily News

Thanksgiving is coming soon, and many of the posts we’ll be publishing on the Easterseals national blog this month will be devoted to the people and things we are grateful for. What better way to start than with an op-ed piece published in the New York Daily News this week?Much to my happy surprise, they didn’t edit out my favorite line of the whole thing: “Most of us aren’t fortunate enough to have a spouse named Mike.” This month –and every month of the year –I am grateful to my husband, Mike Knezovich, for adjusting to my blindness along with me. The op-ed explains — here is Blind, but entitled to cast a ballot” in its entirety:

By Beth Finke

Monday, October 31, 2016

I Voted Today stickerI lost my sight in 1986, to a rare condition called retinopathy. By then I’d already voted twice, in national elections, as a fully-sighted person.

Struggling to adjust to blindness, I was determined not to lose my ability to vote — not just casting a ballot, but the act of voting itself.

Going to the polls is essential. There’s no substitute for the feel of a voting device in your hand or the sound of your vote actually registering, a certainty that voting by absentee ballot can’t provide.

For three decades now I’ve searched for a voting experience equivalent to the one I enjoyed when I could see.

It’s a fair expectation. People who are blind are guaranteed that right by law — many laws, in fact, including at the national level alone: the National Voter Registration Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Help America Vote Act and the Federal Rehabilitation Act.

The technology has existed for many years, too. Text-to-speech software translates the candidate selections on the ballot into spoken choices; a special keypad then enables blind voters to choose their candidates by touch, with the selections confirmed by voice again before the ballot is cast.

Some places — like New York City — have more or less that setup, with ballot-marking devices that allow people who can’t see to make their choices in private.
But in many places, blind people can’t choose candidates on their own. The systems may work in theory, but they don’t in practice.

During the last 30 years I’ve made my way to the polls many times, each time hoping to recapture what I felt emotionally, and what I could actually do, before I became blind. What I experienced were more journeys of trepidation than fulfillment, not to mention the convoluted measures needed to approximate an act guaranteed by our Constitution.

We’ve come a long way of course since 1988, when I first voted as a blind person. The technology back then was punch card, so my husband Mike joined me in the booth, selected the candidates for me and placed my hand on top of the stylus so I could physically punch the ballot on my own.

In a subsequent election, Mike was away on business. I made it to the polls myself, but quickly discovered how much assistance I’d need without him. Two judges — one Democrat, one Republican — crowded with me and my seeing eye dog into the tiny polling booth.

I didn’t bother asking them to put my hand on the stylus so I could punch the card myself, just allowed a third party to vote for me with a second third party to witness.

Yes, I cast a ballot, but the experience was invasive and overheard by many.

Text-to-speech software became available in the mid-2000s, and the news coursed quickly through the blind community that we could now vote independently and privately. I live in Chicago, and the city sponsored free trainings at Chicago public libraries. I spent many hours there, getting a feel for the machines and practicing with the buttons on the handheld device.

When I arrived at the polling station in 2008, the technology was in place but no one could operate it. There’d been no training of staff in the sequences needed — enabling the software, activating the audio, even finding the headphones that ensure privacy of selection.

So backwards in time we went. Once again my husband Mike had to sign an affidavit, accompany me to the booth, read the candidates’ names out loud and hear my choices in response, as did everyone else within earshot. The same scenario repeated in 2012 during the national elections.

Next week we again have a national election of great import, and again, my hopes are raised that I’ll be able to exercise the same basic right that sighted people do — to vote in private without public assistance. Millions of Americans with disabilities share this ambition. . Instead, we need to rely on larger systems and resources. “Save yourself the trouble,” some suggest with a shrug. “Vote absentee.”

On a purely technical level, I won’t vote absentee as it’s historically fraught with challenges, including ballots getting damaged or lost, and in many cases not even counted.

It’s the larger imperative that compels me to the polls, however. People need to see me voting. The astonished comments I hear from people waiting with my seeing eye dog and me in queue tell me they really do want me to vote.

Those of us with disabilities can’t let others forget about us. In the not-too-distant past, people with disabilities did stay home, not just on voting day, but perpetually. We can never go back to those days, and voting publicly is one way to ensure we don’t.

Finke is the interactive community coordinator at Easterseals
headquarters in Chicago and the author of two books.