They started out just planning to shoot video of a man with disabilities going to vote.
They ended up exposing a pronounced lack of attention to polling place accessibility in Luzerne County, a lack of attention exemplified by $66,000 worth of federally funded ramps and other portable items designed to assure access languishing in a basement for years.
“We went on a tour of that (county building) basement, and all of that equipment, to our eyes, had never been used,” Misericordia University Communications Chair Melissa Sgroi said.
Sgroi and Assistant Communications Professor Dan Kimbrough exposed the access problem in a short documentary film dubbed “VOTE” in January.
Discovery of the idle equipment came after the movie was screened in public, which was one reason they opted to make a longer sequel, “VOTE: The Disabled Democracy,” which will get its public debut Oct. 29 on campus.
Not bad for two people who set out simply to capture one person’s plight. Incidentally, he had no problem entering the voting location, except for a lack of a handicapped parking space near the building.
After they got that video, during the November general election last year, the pair decided on a whim to visit a few other polling places. They stopped at four in Luzerne County, anticipating most would be problem-free. Every place they went to had access issues.
“Did we expect what we saw?” Sgroi asked. “No. We were shocked at the barriers we encountered.”
Often it was something seemingly innocuous to those who have no difficulties: a small raised lip at the doorway, a lack of handicap parking. Other times it bordered on the absurd: a wheelchair ramp to a locked door with no buzzer to signal a desire to get in.
“It’s not funny, and yet some of it is so horrifying you have to laugh,” Sgroi said.
When the duo explored the issue further, they discovered Luzerne County had been using federal grant money to buy portable handicap access equipment since about 2003, yet hadn’t used it.
They raised the issue with Luzerne County Bureau of Elections Director Marie Crispell Barber – who had served as interim director for the November election before getting the job full-time, and she told them she had simply assumed all the election locations were handicap accessible.
When Crispell Barber learned of the stowed portable equipment, “she was enraged,” Sgroi said.
Crispell Barber’s assumption about accessibility may have been justified in other counties.
Other counties checked
The documentarians decided to do a follow-up in this year’s primary election, revisiting the polling locations they stopped at in November and adding several locations in Dauphin and Schuylkill counties, expecting similar problems.
“We actually found the exact opposite,” Kimbrough said. “In other counties, they were actively doing things to make sure you could get in.”
Though often passionate about the issue, the pair repeatedly stress their movies are not “gotcha” flicks.
“No one was upset when we brought it to light,” Kimbrough said. People appreciated the insight, acknowledging they simply weren’t aware of the problem. “People don’t mean to be exclusionary.”
That may actually be part of the problem, the pair noted.
Most people don’t think it is exclusionary. They assume that those who have trouble getting into polling places on their own will be satisfied with alternatives like absentee ballots. But that misses the point.
“If I am in a motorized chair and can move myself, I should be able to go in,” Kimbrough added. “If I can move on my own, then there should be no barrier.”
When it comes to absentee ballots in particular, Sgroi said, “We are socially isolating them by saying you can do it from home.”
Education is key
The solution is often simply education, though Sgroi added that the media has a role to play.
Any time a political event – a rally or press conference, for example – is held, reporters should take 30 seconds to determine if it is fully accessible. “And if it’s not, are we calling that politician to task right there?”
The issue should matter to everyone, Kimbrough said, because old age or injury almost guarantee “we’re all going to have some form of disability in our lives.”
“Voting is a right and not a privilege,” Sgroi said. “But it’s more than that; it’s a social activity. It’s the time when we meet the butcher and the lady down the street we haven’t seen, and we talk about the kids we haven’t seen all year.
“It’s the one time when we as Americans come together regardless of party affiliation, regardless of who you are going to vote for, in celebration and support of our system of government and our country. People have a right to not be excluded or segregated as a result of physical difference.”
“Disability,” Kimbrough added, “is the last form of socially acceptable discrimination.”