Teri-Lee Walters has been in a wheelchair since the age of 13 and is hurt that, in 2009, handicapped persons are still have trouble exercising their most basic rights as citizens.
On Sunday, Nov. 1 – municipal election day – Walters and her 75-year-old grandmother made their way to the polling station at St. Gabriel School in Point St. Charles. It was not made clear, Walters said, that she was supposed to vote in advance because of her disability.
When she showed up at the school, to her surprise, the facility chosen to welcome voters in the Point was not wheelchair-accessible. It is an oversight Walters describes as offensive and insensitive.
“I am tired of being treated like a second-class citizen,” Walters told The Métropolitain. “My grandmother, with bad knees, had to be assisted up the three steps with her walker, after we waited outside in the cold for 20 minutes to find out if we could both vote. She did get to vote, I did not.”
She said another area school and a recreation centre, both of which are wheelchair-accessible, are typically used for elections, but for whatever reason, this time she was directed to St. Gabriel’s. Other citizens offered to carry Walters up the stairs in her wheelchair, but she declined, fearing it could lead to an accident.
“The door that they were directing everybody into has three steps. I circled the building to see if there were other entrances (that were accessible), but there were none,” Walters said. “They told me that they were told they weren’t allowed to put anything down to make a temporary ramp…and legally, they’re not allowed to bring the ballot out to me. It’s respectable that there are security measures around polling stations and that’s the way it should be. But I should be allowed to vote. I was disturbed by this.”
The only clear answer that Walters received from election officials on-site was that she should have cast a ballot during the advanced voting period. “Too late for that now,” as she told them, “and how was I supposed to know that my polling station wasn’t accessible?” After doing some digging, Walters discovered that city of Montreal directives suggest that most polling stations “should” be accessible on voting day – no guarantees for citizens with mobility issues.
“In this day and age, we should have full accessibility. Our population is aging and there are going to be more and more people who are not going to be able to access polls. That’s unfair.”
Speaking on behalf of Élection Montréal officials, city spokesperson Gonzalo Nunez said that all advanced polling stations were wheelchair accessible and the voter’s card indicates which station on voting day would have been able to accommodate Walters. A small logo appears next to the address of accessible polls. It remains unclear whether or not election officials would have been able to bend the rules to grant Walters a vote.
“It’s possible, depending on circumstances, to move a ballot box to facilitate the right to vote,” Nunez said. “It was done on Nov. 1 is some cases. However, it remains a judgement call for the person responsible in the room who needs to uphold correct procedures for the vote in general.”
One would think that the first person to come to Walters’ defence would be Lise Poulin, a newly elected borough councillor in the Canal district of Lachine. As of Nov. 1, Poulin was the first wheelchair-bound elected official in Quebec (former Lieutenant Governor Lise Thibault was appointed). She doesn’t see herself as a city-wide spokesperson for the disabled but a simple representative of citizens in her district.
“Nothing is perfect. We’ve gone a long way in the past few years,” Poulin said. “Of course it’s surprising,” but the Tremblay administration has done a lot to make the city more accessible, including the introduction of elevators in some Metro stations, added the Union councillor.
“If an individual business doesn’t want to be accessible, fine, that’s their loss. I’m not going to spend my money there,” Walters said – but a poling station being off-limits to a significant segment of the population? “I was extremely angry. I’ve seen how people treat me and how society treats me…we like to think it’s equal but it’s not. We’re not there yet. I have a university education, I go out, I do the same things that everyone else does. I have a full life. But then I couldn’t vote. I couldn’t express my opinion. It was a major slap in the face. It shook me up and I realized just how powerless I felt.”