The number of people with disabilities who are eligible to vote is rapidly growing and voting websites, polling locations and technologies are racing to be responsive.
GBH’s Carl and Ruth Shapiro Family National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM) is playing a key role.
NCAM, an accessibility consulting unit of GBH, which made its mark early on by inventing captioning for broadcast television, is working with states and app developers to improve the accessibility of voting information, election-related websites and tools and the voting experience itself for the more than 35 million U.S. voters who have a disability. Most recently, NCAM has worked with Voatz, a Brookline-based developer, to ensure that its voting app, long used by overseas military personnel, is accessible domestically for people with disabilities. We sat down with Donna Danielewski, senior director of NCAM, and Claire Houston, NCAM accessibility analyst, to learn more.
What accessibility issues do people with disabilities face?
DD: There are a multitude of issues for voters with disabilities. Accessibility of polling locations, voter registration and candidates’ websites, barriers to use of paper ballots and more. The Government Accountability Office noted that nearly two-thirds of the 137 polling places inspected on Election Day 2016 had at least one impediment to people with disabilities. Our goal is to lower as many barriers as possible to the process so that everybody’s vote counts, and everybody has a voice.
CH: If people with disabilities voted at the same rate as people without disabilities (who have the same demographic characteristics), there would be about 2.35 million more voters. In fact, people with disabilities and their immediate family members make up one of the largest voter blocs in the country. We want to do everything that is humanly possible to avoid even one person from not being able to cast their ballot.
How have you been able to address those barriers?
DD: NCAM’s main focus is ensuring access to digital information. We have worked with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Secretary of State’s office since 2010 on making voter registration and election-related resources accessible, especially to voters who may be using assistive technology, such as screen readers, screen magnifiers, adaptive keyboards or other technologies.
What is involved in testing an app or a website for accessibility?
DD: We test against the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, known as WCAG, which are a set of criteria for ensuring accessibility on apps and websites. WCAG provides guidance regarding appropriate descriptive text for photos, captions for videos, and clarity for screen readers with regard to navigation.
CH: Our evaluations are conducted using the assistive technology someone with a disability may use. We want to ensure, for example, that the forms — such as a voter registration form — are accessible. If people can't fill out that form, they can’t register to vote or check their ballot.
Describe your work with the voting app Voatz.
DD: Voatz has been serving the military community for years. We’re working with them to make their app accessible for voters with disabilities, to allow people to vote safely and securely at home on their phones or tablets. The app needs to perform a wide suite of services depending on what that election looks like, such as ranked choice voting, where you have to be able to select several buttons at once. Verification of identity is also an important aspect, as the app has to interface with other databases and other systems. We also scrutinize how the app works with the screen reader that's built into mobile devices.
CH: We are also helping Voatz to future-proof the app, so that when new voting options or designs come along, accessibility isn’t lost and can easily be integrated.
How does this work fit into the GBH mission?
DD: We have a mission to serve the entire community, which includes people with disabilities. NCAM works to ensure that people with disabilities can participate fully in their communities and that marginalized voices are included. There is a lot at stake in this election-related work because it’s essential that a person’s right to cast a private ballot is preserved. Wherever technology can lower a barrier, NCAM is grateful to play a part.