2020 marks the 30th anniversary of President George H.W. Bush signing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law. Throughout this 30th anniversary year, the Division is publishing a monthly series of blog posts highlighting the impact that our recent ADA enforcement efforts have made in people’s everyday lives. We celebrate the many ways in which the ADA has transformed American society and enabled a generation of Americans with disabilities to thrive. At the same time, we recognize that too many barriers to equal opportunity remain. We recommit to our work of making the promise of the ADA a reality, enabling all Americans with disabilities to achieve their dreams and reach their full potential.
United States v. Harris County
The ADA guarantees people with disabilities equal participation in all aspects of society, including in the exercise of one of our most fundamental rights—voting. On March 12, 2019, the United States resolved a lawsuit against Harris County, Texas, alleging that the County’s voting program—the third largest in the country—is inaccessible to voters with disabilities. The United States’ complaint alleged that many polling places in Harris County have architectural barriers—such as steep ramps or gaps in sidewalks and walkways—that make them inaccessible to voters with mobility impairments or voters who are blind or visually impaired. Under the agreement, Harris County is bringing its voting program into compliance with the ADA. The accounts below detail some of the alleged barriers faced by Harris County voters with disabilities before the United States brought its case.
James Sweatt Jr., was the first person in line to vote when the polls opened at his polling place, Sylvan Rodriguez Elementary School in Houston. Mr. Sweatt has a mobility disability and uses a power wheelchair. When he arrived at the school, he could not enter his polling place because of a high threshold at the entrance. His request to use another entrance was denied. Mr. Sweatt waited outside for more than an hour in the rain until someone helped lift his power chair over the threshold.
While Mr. Sweatt was eventually able to enter the polling place and cast his ballot, he felt demeaned and frustrated because physical barriers prevented him from independently entering the polling place.
Rosalie Vasquez and her family have traditionally enjoyed the voting experience, from seeing neighbors and community members at their polling place to proudly wearing “I Voted” stickers upon casting their ballots. On Election Day, Rosalie Vasquez drove her family to vote curbside at their polling place in Humble, Texas. Ms. Vasquez’s son and mother have physical disabilities. Upon parking, the family noticed that no one was outside to help with curbside voting. Under Texas law, voters who are physically unable to enter the polling location without assistance or likelihood of injury may curbside vote. Ms. Vasquez went inside to seek help.
Approximately 10 minutes later, an election judge and poll worker came out with a curbside voting machine. The election judge repeatedly told Ms. Vasquez that her family should vote by mail in the future. Ultimately, Ms. Vasquez’s son and mother were able to vote curbside. Nevertheless, the Vasquez family found the experience discouraging and intimidating.
Kelly Moore, a long-time resident of Houston, enjoys voting in person. Ms. Moore has muscular dystrophy and uses a power wheelchair. Upon moving to a new neighborhood, she went to vote at her polling place–Lanier Middle School in Houston–on Election Day. But on arrival, steps to the front entrance blocked her path. A sign indicated that there was an accessible entrance off a nearby road. Ms. Moore proceeded along that route for as far as she could, but could not find the accessible entrance.
Ms. Moore returned to the front of the school where other voters sought to help, eventually going inside to find a poll worker. The poll worker confirmed the existence of an accessible entrance, but neither she nor other poll workers knew where it was. They repeatedly offered Ms. Moore curbside voting instead.
Ms. Moore wanted to vote alongside her neighbors, and, if there was an accessible entrance, she wanted to use it. As she explains, “curbside voting is a very separate experience; one does not get to be a part of the community of people voting.” Eventually, a school police officer appeared outside and told Ms. Moore that he would lead her to the voting room. He led Ms. Moore through a locked gate near the main entrance and then through the school. She passed through one door after another, numerous routes and hallways packed with middle school students. Ms. Moore felt embarrassed, out of place, and uncomfortable being escorted by a police officer. She was eventually taken to the voting room where she cast her ballot. As a result of her experience, Ms. Moore lost confidence that her polling place would be accessible, but was hesitant to vote at an unfamiliar polling place.
Following the United States’ agreement, in December 2019 on a busy Saturday, Ms. Moore returned to Lanier to vote in Harris County’s run-off Election. Ms. Moore was able to cast her ballot, independently and without an escort.
Eliminating barriers to voting—such as those experienced by Mr. Sweat, Ms. Vasquez’s family, and Ms. Moore—is central to the ADA’s goal of equality and full participation for people with disabilities. With this agreement, Harris County has the opportunity to develop and implement a voting program that significantly furthers that goal and ensures that voters with disabilities can cast their ballot on the same terms and with the same level of independence and privacy as voters without disabilities.
The United States’ agreement with Harris County is part of the Department’s ADA Voting Initiative, which focuses on protecting the voting rights of individuals with disabilities. A hallmark of the ADA Voting Initiative is its collaboration with jurisdictions to increase accessibility at polling places. Through this Initiative, the Department has surveyed more than 2,000 polling places and increased polling place accessibility in more than 50 jurisdictions, including Chicago; Richland County, South Carolina; Sandoval County, New Mexico; Union and Ocean Counties, New Jersey; and York County, Pennsylvania.
To read the settlement agreement, please click here, and to read the federal court complaint, please click here. For more information on the Civil Rights Division, please visit www.justice.gov/crt. For more information on the ADA, please call the Department’s toll-free ADA Information Line at 800-514-0301 (TDD 800-514-0383) or visit www.ada.gov.