We were concluding our annual IEP meeting last spring when the director of special education offered us a voter registration form for our 19-year-old autistic son Mickey.
“Are you kidding?” my husband Marc said. “He doesn’t know Dick Nixon from Dick Tracy.”
Legally Mickey is entitled to vote, but without being able to weigh and consider the issues and candidates, what would his vote mean? Mickey can vote. But should he? We have the legal authority to make medical and life decisions for him; that certainly doesn’t give us the right to tell him who to vote for. But if he votes, wouldn’t he just be voting for whoever we told him to vote for?
How do you know when—or even if—it’s time to encourage your cognitively disabled adult child to vote?
There was a lawsuit in Minnesota that set off alarms this year—as well it should—about whether disabled people who cannot handle their own affairs and are under the care of a legal guardian should retain the right to vote. It grew out of a 2010 incident in which a Minnesota voter claimed he saw mentally disabled adults being coerced by their caregivers to vote for certain candidates. I understand that someone with a disability can be taken advantage of—it is one of the worries that keeps me awake nights. But do you penalize all disabled people, just because they could be victimized? How can you take away a person’s right to vote on the grounds of mental illness or intellectual disability? That violates a person’s civil rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
When our nation was founded, only white men could vote; after the Civil War, Jim Crow laws, literacy tests and poll taxes barred many African-Americans from voting. The right to vote was hard won for women too. But today voting is a fundamental right protected by federal law. As long as you’re a citizen and over 18, you can vote. It isn’t based on educational level. No one administers a test. We don’t ask voters if they understand the issues, or assess their knowledge of the Constitution. Can you imagine if an IQ test (controversial in itself) for nondisabled citizens were required? What would that cut off be, and who would make that decision?
“Mickey, do you know there’s an election this year?” I ask him. He doesn’t. I ask who our President is.
I explain about how next month we will be voting for who will be president for the next four years, and ask, “Would you want to vote?”
“Can I vote for George Washington?” he asks.
I turn this over and over in my mind. For the rest of his life Mickey will be relying on federal and state programs such as Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income. Mickey can literally read a ballot. He’s over 18. He’s a citizen. He’s entitled to vote. Shouldn’t he be voting on candidates and issues that will affect his own life?
But there’s a chasm between having the right to vote and the actual ability to understand the issues and voting process. Our son doesn’t understand those issues yet. We hope someday he will. I don’t think he should be voting until he realizes that Election Day means more than a day off from school.