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Disability And Fighting For The Right To Vote

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Many Americans are not allowed to vote - felons in some states, for one. And also, thousands of people with mental disabilities are banned from voting. Many of them lost that right when they were placed under guardianship. In order to get their voting rights back, they have had to appeal to a judge.

That's what happened to Jack Vaile. He has cerebral palsy. He uses an iPad to communicate and an electric wheelchair to move around. He's also really into politics. To tell us Jack's story, we've reached his father Lou Vaile in Oakland, Calif.

Welcome to the program.

LOU VAILE: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You needed to take charge of Jack's finances when he turned 18. You became his conservator under state law. What were you told then about Jack's voting rights during that process?

VAILE: Absolutely nothing. The attorney that we worked with to get conservatorship did not mention his voting rights at all.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So how did you find out that he wasn't going to be able to vote?

VAILE: We filed for conservatorship right around his 18th birthday in January of 2016. I received the official paperwork saying that conservatorship had been granted probably the first week of March. I opened up the document and just, you know, was just glancing over it to see what it said. And there was a box that is checked that says the conservatee cannot communicate, with or without reasonable accommodations, a desire to participate in the voting process.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What did your son say when he realized that he wasn't going to be able to vote? I mean, what did that conversation look like?

VAILE: OK, this is a devastating story. We got this right around the primary time, and we had already filled out his ballot to vote. And he was so excited. He was all for Bernie at that time. He had done a report on Bernie. We had gone to hear Bernie speak. And I didn't tell him. I was too sickened. So I didn't tell him until I told him we were going to go meet an attorney to talk about something. And he was so angry.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And so what did you do? I mean, how were you able to reinstate Jack's right to vote?

VAILE: Well, after I got over the devastation of what I had inadvertently done to my son, I reached out to Disability Rights California, which is located here in Oakland, and was put in contact with an attorney who actually has cerebral palsy himself. And he said that he could help us out. He asked me to bring Jack in so he could meet him. And he reached out to the - it's a public defender that's assigned to represent someone in a conservatorship process. He reached out to that attorney and informed him of the illegality of what had been done and got the public defender to go back to court and have Jack's voting rights reinstated.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It must have been very meaningful for him when he was finally able to vote.

VAILE: It was, except Bernie didn't win the primary. So (laughter) that probably took a little of the fun out of it or a little shine off of it. But he still was very engaged in the process and, you know, watched the election results.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Supporters of laws like this say that they prevent voter manipulation and fraud. What do you think of that?

VAILE: I can't imagine that the number of people with disabilities - that their votes would be fraudulently used to sway an election. But the fact that people are being disenfranchised is incredibly upsetting. Just because someone has a disability that impacts them in a profound way does not mean they don't have the capacity to understand what's happening to them. And they should have a voice in the process. The most vulnerable people in our communities need to have a voice in politics more than others.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What's your advice to guardians and conservators who are trying to get that right back for the people under their care?

VAILE: I think there are probably thousands of people that aren't even aware either that they have the right to vote or that they have had it taken away. So I would love for education to happen for people with disabilities to be seen as full citizens in our country because we need to be taking care of the people that need the most from us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Lou Vaile talking to us from Oakland, Calif., about his son Jack.

Thank you very much.

VAILE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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