Submissions List TBI Interagency Conference

Environmental Barriers and Facilitators to Voting Participation of People with Disabilities

  • Yang, Hsiang-Yu
  • Harris, Frances
  • Sanford, Jon


Rigor and Relevance of Disability Research Evidence


This paper presents results of a project aimed to develop a holistic understanding of barriers and facilitators that impact voting participation. Interview results show that poll workers’ lack of knowledge about assistive technologies, privacy of ballots, and lack of universal and accessible voting machines are the most common barriers. 


Americans with disabilities face diverse obstacles to voting including physical, cultural, economic, educational and political barriers. The overall goal of this project is to create a voting system that enables people with disabilities to vote independently and privately within traditional voting centers and vote-by-mail.  As part of this task, researchers at Georgia Tech are conducting in-depth, semi-structured telephone interviews among people with disabilities who have recently voted.  The purpose of these interviews is to develop a holistic and integrated understanding of the barriers and facilitators that impact individuals’ experiences with voting technologies, environments, and processes.  This paper reports preliminary results from ten interviews conducted among people with disabilities who voted in the November 2011 elections. 

Subjects were recruited through the Center for Assistive Technology & Environmental Access (CATEA)’s Consumer Network.  Interviews lasted between 1 and 2 hours.  All interviews were transcribed.  This study was approved by the Georgia Tech’s Institutional Review Board. 

Seven women and 3 men were recruited.  Impairments included visual, hearing, mobility and cognitive.  Six subjects lived in urban areas, 3 in the suburbs, and 1 in a rural area.  Subjects were asked about facilitators and barriers in ballot design, the use of electronic voting machines, their experiences with absentee voting (if any), and in-person voting.  Electronic voting machine types include the ImageCast, the Diebold Accuvote TS System, and the ES & Ivotronic machine. Among the voting technologies queried were an audio tactile device designed to assist people with mobility, visual, and cognitive impairments; a paddle device for people with fine motor impairments; and a sip and puff.

Voter responses raised many issues.  While most voters felt positive about physical accessibility of polling places and the helpfulness and support of poll workers, many barriers were cited.  Three of the most common were 1) Poll workers’ lack of training and knowledge about assistive technologies designed to make voting machines accessible; 2) privacy of their ballots, and 3) lack of universal designed and accessible voting machines. 

Although 4 voters noted that poll workers were pleasant and supportive, 5 reported that poll workers were neither knowledgeable nor adequately trained in the use of features designed to make voting machines more accessible.  Some felt that their privacy was compromised during assistance from poll while submitting their ballot, or by the placement of machines relative to other machines.  Lastly, three voters observed that the presence of a designated voting machine for people with disabilities made them feel conspicuous and stigmatized.  Visually, cognitive, and hearing impaired individuals commented on confusion created by certain features of audio technologies including:  inadequate volume control, inadequate control over speed of the voice, non-functional headphones, and the unclear directions.  People with mobility disabilities noted that voting tables were too low to accommodate their wheelchair, lack of adequate space in polling place, and the height of the machines.

Interview data reveal the complexities confronted by voters with disabilities in multiple contexts.  Identifying key barriers can inform design and policy guidelines that encourage increased voting participation among people with disabilities.