Voters with Disabilities: Best Practices for Poll Workers

These Best Practices Apply to All Voters But Are Especially Helpful to Seniors and Voters with Disabilities

Man with Down's Syndrome wearing t-shirt that reads label jars not people.

  • Don't make assumptions about an individual's ability to make an informed vote based on appearance and/or disability.
  • An individual may have an aid or family member with them to provide assistance.  this should not affect their right to vote!
  • Make eye contact and speak directly to the voter-even if they are with an interpreter, assistant, or family member who may be speaking for them.
  • Ask questions, if needed, and don't hesitate to offer assistance.  People with disabilities know their needs and the best way for staff to assist them.
  • Ask questions, if needed, and don’t hesitate to offer assistance. People with disabilities know their needs and the best way for staff to assist them.
  • Introduce yourself and ask individuals for their names if you will be assisting them.
  • Poll workers should be trained to use accessible voting equipment and be able to provide assistance when needed.
  • If you make announcements of changes, such as where people should line-up, be sure to post this information as well.  Having poster paper and markers available for impromptu signs is a good idea.
  • People who use walkers, canes, braces, or have conditions that cause fatigue, may need a place to sit while waiting in line to vote.  A simple folding chair will meet this need.
  • Some people may need more time to process information for a variety of reasons--do not rush them or become impatient.
  • It may be helpful or necessary to touch a person’s shoulder or arm to get their attention. 
  • Do not grab, pull, or tap a person from behind!  Most people do not prefer to be approached from behind and can be startled.  People with certain types of disabilities may find this to be upsetting.
  • Always ask permission to touch or move a voter’s personal items.  Doing so is considered polite and respectful. People with certain types of disabilities may find it upsetting to have their belongings moved or touched.

Best Practices for Specific Disabilities

Wheelchair Users

Wheelchair icon.

The wheelchair is part of a person’s body space. Do not grab or lean on an individual’s wheelchair.

Never push a wheelchair without first getting permission from the wheelchair user!  If someone is having obvious difficulty, such as getting over a threshold or pushing a door open, ask the person if they need help.

Keep the “path of travel” clear. Wheelchair users need to have a clear path to the ballot box, tables, etc. For instance, keep folding chairs pushed close to tables when not in use.

Blindness/Low Vision

Graphic of blind man using cane.

Identify yourself. A simple “Hi, I’m Mary, and I am a poll worker,” assures the voter that they are working with the right person.

Provide specific directions to locations. Instead of “the accessible ballot marking equipment is at the back of the room,” say, “we have an accessible ballot marking equipment about 20 feet to your right in the back of the room.”

If asked to guide an individual who is blind, offer your arm, elbow, or shoulder. When moving, describe what is on the path ahead. Example: “We are moving through a doorway and taking a right down a hallway.”  Let the person know when you are leaving. Example: “I’m going to return to the front area now.”

Hearing Loss/Deafness

Graphic of hands signing.

Keep your face and mouth visible for lip reading.

Don’t speak slowly or over enunciate your words for lip readers.  Doing this actually makes lip reading more difficult.  Simply speak clearly at a normal rate of speech.

When a companion or interpreter is present, be sure to address the voter, not the other person.

Two-way communication can occur by nodding, gesturing, or writing notes. When you point to something, such as a different area in the room or to some preprinted information, be sure you maintain or regain eye contact before speaking.

Disabilities that Affect Speech

Allow the person time to speak. Don’t complete the person’s sentences!

Use the same tone of voice and volume that you typically use, unless the person asks for you to speak louder and/or more slowly.

Don’t show impatience—pay attention to what your body language/facial expressions are conveying.

Repeating what you understood the person to say and then letting the voter verify that you are correct is one technique to ensure communication is effective.

Speak normally—hearing aids are tuned for normal volume of speech.

Using People First Language.  

Use language that focuses on the person rather than the disability.  Example “wheelchair user” instead of “confined to a wheelchair.”  Avoid descriptions like mute or handicapped.  Don’t describe interactions with terms like crazy, insane, slow, or stupid.  Terms such as suffering, victim, or confined should also not be used. The following do’s and don’ts are somewhat obvious, but they clearly show the difference between language that focuses on disability rather than the person.

Do: Would you assist the man using a wheelchair at the door?

Avoid: The man sitting in the wheelchair can’t open the door. He needs help.

Do: The woman in the red jacket with a guide dog has some questions.

Avoid: See that blind woman over there (pointing). She can’t vote by herself.

The best language is polite, friendly, matter-of-fact, and does not focus on disability or attribute interactions to disability. 

Voting Assistance

Young woman polling volunteer assisting senior citizen with election voting machine.

  • Voters with disabilities may request assistance from poll workers for help with using ballot marking devices.  Poll workers may also provide other types of assistance, such as helping a voter with limited hand dexterity to place their ballot in the ballot box or providing a chair to a person with severe fatigue who is waiting to vote.  Note: Poll workers are not required to let someone go to the “front of the line” due to disability.  
  • Poll workers should be sure not to judge a person’s ability to vote based upon appearance, physical abilities, or the need for reading and writing assistance.
  • If a voter is having difficulty understanding you, try saying your instructions differently rather than repeating the same phrase over and over. You may also try showing the voter what you mean while speaking.  For example, point to the line where you want them to sign, while explaining the procedure.
  • Avoid jargon and use simple vocabulary.
  • People with disabilities may have voting issues that are not related to disability.  These situations should be treated in the same manner as they would for any other citizen.  For instance, if a citizen who is blind did not register before the election, the issue at hand is voter registration--not disability. 

Accessibility Complaints

If a voter with a disability informs you there is a problem that limits their ability to vote, for example, a ballot marking device that is not working correctly—don’t take this as a personal criticism of yourself or the polling place.  

Remain courteous and friendly and follow-through on getting the voter whatever assistance is needed to ensure their ability to vote.  Generally, these types of issues are handled by polling workers notifying local election officials of the complaint. 

A voter with a disability may inform you that they plan to file a formal complaint based on issues such as inaccessible facilities or ballot marking devices. Remember, it is their right to do so and not a personal reflection on poll workers.  Filing a complaint is one way to improve future voting accessibility. 

Developed by the Great Plains ADA Center.  Posted August 10, 2020.