Accessibility issues cause problems for voter

A Beach resident who had trouble voting in her wheelchair says she expects better from Elections Canada.

Mary Jo Meilhac has lived in the Beach for 50 years and has voted in every election since she turned 18.

But that was hard to do on Oct. 19, the first time Meilhac voted in a federal election since she began using an electric wheelchair.

Meilhac did vote at her local polling station, Kew Beach Public School, but not until two Elections Canada workers and a good Samaritan helped lift her electric wheelchair over a half-step at the door.

Elections Canada lists the school as wheelchair-accessible, meaning it should have a level entrance with either an automated door or a manual door with a staff person to help.

But when Meilhac arrived, there was no one to help open the non-automatic doors, which swung open in such a way that she could not open them by hand.

“Whoever planned this either didn’t live it, or didn’t get the proper feedback,” she said, adding that she worried about damage to her heavy, $13,000 wheelchair as it was lifted over the half-step.

Meilhac said she is grateful to the people who helped her, but Elections Canada should have a better plan.

“They were really helpful – they did as much as they could,” she said. “But I’m wondering, were they basically thrown into the pool and forced to swim?”

Caroline Bisson, a spokesperson for Elections Canada, said returning officers are still compiling feedback from the Oct. 19 election, including the accessibility survey forms that were available at each polling station.

“We do take those complaints very seriously,” said Bisson.

Two years before the recent election, Elections Canada ranked 28,000 possible polling stations in a new database that includes a checklist of accessibility features, such as mandatory door widths and a requirement that voting rooms be on the same level as the entrance.

The 35 accessibility criteria were developed with the Canadian Human Rights Commission and the Council of Canadians with Disabilities.

Bisson said returning officers typically have just 10 days to book the 20,000 polling stations needed for a federal election, and the most accessible locations are sometimes unavailable.

Before voting, electors can review a station’s accessibility features in detail by phoning Elections Canada or checking its website.

As for training, Bisson said all Elections Canada staff review real-life examples of how to approach voters who may need help, whether or not they have a disability.

Anyone who has had an accessibility problem at a federal polling site can notify Elections Canada using the accessibility feedback form available on the Contact Us page at www.elections.ca or by phoning 1-800-463-6868.


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2 comments

Dear Mr. Hudson,
Thanks so much for writing about this. I encountered the same accessibility barrier when I went to vote at the polling station at Kew Beach School – okay for me because I don’t have any mobility issues (yet), but my husband, like Mary Jo Meilhac, is in an electric wheelchair. He wasn’t with me at the time, as he was planning to vote later in the day. I knew he could not make it up that small step, and raised my concern with one of the officials/volunteers on site. I was told not to worry, that they would lift his chair over the step as they had already done with another person in a chair. My husband’s wheelchair is big, heavy and – like Mary Jo’s – expensive. Also, it’s awfully undignified to have to be hoisted into the polling station to exercise the fundamental right to vote. (In prior years, before my husband was disabled, there was always a portable ramp to make the polling station at Kew Beach School accessible. No portable ramp this time.)
I called Elections Canada when I got home after casting my ballot, and was told Elections Canada had been informed that the Kew Beach polling station had “level access”, (i.e. no small step to get into the front doors). There is a detailed accessibility checklist on the Elections Canada website, which I printed out and took down to the polling station officials. I was told again that my husband could be lifted in, but a passerby who overheard suggested that the official ask the school custodian if there was…

Glad to see people speaking out. We have lived in Shanty Bay since 1984 but once a Beacher Always a Beacher. This problem was solved at our local school. Elections Canada had looked at the site and refused to use it. The school had been used for years but many a time I talked to officials that it was suitable. I am not handicapped but try to make it right for those who are

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