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Deaf voters reliant on sign language report inadequate access to the polls in Bexar County


The Bexar County Elections Department office is one of just two polling sites in the county that offers a live interpreter. - SANFORD NOWLIN
  • Sanford Nowlin
  • The Bexar County Elections Department office is one of just two polling sites in the county that offers a live interpreter.
Deaf voters in Bexar County aren't getting adequate access to voting, according to nonprofit advocacy group No Barriers Communications.

The organization has received numerous messages from deaf voters concerned about being able to access nearby voting centers, Executive Director Kay Chiodo said. Those who need assistance from a sign language interpreter are being told the service is only available at one location, the Bexar County Elections Department on Frio Street.

"You would never tell someone blind, or someone in a wheelchair, 'You can only come to one location to vote,'" Chiodo told the Current. "All the deaf in Bexar County were given one place to vote, one place. That would never fly."

Bexar Elections County Administrator Jacque Callanen said during a press conference Monday that one additional polling location, San Antonio College's Victory Center, offers a live interpreter.

"We've worked well with the deaf community," Callanen said. "We've been inclusive."

But deaf voters looking for information about interpreting services have been referred to the Frio Street location alone, Chiodo said. A lack of advertisement and helpful communication is part of the problem, she added.

Some deaf voters reliant on interpreting services may not have access to transportation that makes it feasible for them commute to just two of 48 early voting locations.

"For years, deaf groups have not only talked to, but begged, Bexar County Elections Department for better access. And, because this is a presidential race and it's so important, many [deaf residents] wanted to vote," Chiodo said.  "But if you can't read the ballot, it is a disability, and it is covered by the ADA."

She added: "It is the law to have equal access to vote. Simply put, deaf voters don't have it."

'Not even second-class citizens'

Deaf individuals have expressed outrage at Chiodo's office, saying they feel like they're not even being treated as well as second-class citizens.

During her interview with the Current, Chiodo translated video messages from deaf voters upset about the limited voting access from sign language to English. These are their experiences:

"I am refused access at the polling site near my home," one said. "I am told to go to 1103 South Frio if I want interpreter. I cannot drive so far. I cannot vote."

"Many deaf friends who are using [American Sign Language] are not voting because it is too far," another said. "They have been refused access at polling sites near them. Many deaf won't try to vote because they already know from years of being embarrassed at polling sites, because no access is given to us, even though there are laws that say it is our right to vote like other people."

After clarifying that there's one additional voting site with ASL accommodations, Callanen said at Monday's press conference that county poll workers at other voting locations are adequately trained to help deaf voters.

"We have a disability group that comes in [to offer training]," Callanen said. "We're working as best as we can."

Like a second language

Deaf people may require an interpreter to vote since ASL is completely different than the English language, Chiodo said.

"Even though it's called American Sign Language, it's the same sign language deaf in Haiti use," she explained. "It's a foreign language. It has no writing system. It is a visual, gestural language that was never meant to be written."

Not all deaf individuals rely solely on ASL to communicate, however many do. People in whom deafness occurs before learning speech or language are often completely reliant on sign language, according to Chiodo.

Chiodo not only grew up around deaf and deaf-blind individuals, she is an interpreter and does ADA advising for access solutions for Georgia Tech and integrative public alert warning systems for FEMA.

From her experience, equal access at the polls could involve placing iPads at voting stations so deaf voters can access remote interpreter services. Polling places also could use a hotspot to offer interpreting capabilities for disabled deaf people voting curbside, she said.

While voters are allowed to bring their own interpreters to the polling stations, many end up paying for the service, Chiodo added.

Callanen said the elections office may end up purchasing more iPads to use at the polls, but it won't happen this election.

"We haven't ordered them yet," she said. "We are waiting to see as we get through all the COVID precautions and all the extra expenses, then when this election is over, then we will be able to purchase [iPads] moving forward."

The Texas Secretary of State's office says deaf voters in need of a sign language interpreter can contact their election officials beforehand to request assistance.

The same website also says that all polling places in Texas should have voting systems that are accessible to voters with no hearing or low hearing and that polling places shouldn't hinder those voters.

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