New technology will help voters with disabilities cast their ballots

Tina Marano’s life will change on Oct.25.

Completely blind and hearing impaired since birth, she has never voted in an election without a friend to assist her.

But this Election Day, she will feel the thrill of voting on her own for the first time.

“I will feel proud,” Marano said. “It would be rewarding to vote independently.”

On Wednesday, Marano, 46, visited Trinity St. Paul’s United Church to try out Toronto Elections’ new AutoMARK Voter Assist Terminal (VAT), which will allow those living with disabilities to mark their ballots without assistance. Although Toronto used touch screen terminals with Braille keypads and large print in the last election, the new VATs have additional assistive features such as headphones, a rocker paddle and sip-n-puff tube for voters with limited mobility.

City of Toronto elections coordinator Joanne Wheatley introduced the new technology to Marano and a handful of others to demonstrate Toronto’s new accessibility plan for the election.

“We’ve made it so that everybody is treated equal,” she said. “It’s everyone’s right to not tell anybody who you’re going to vote for.”

But Marano isn’t independent just yet – first Wheatley must explain the machine’s various gadgets to her.

Marano fingers the Braille on each button; ‘forward’, ‘backward’, ‘up’, ‘down’ and ‘select’. Meanwhile, Wheatley feeds a blank paper ballot into the machine and initiates its audio instructions.

Wheatley offers a little help navigating the pages from the introduction to the pages where voters can select candidates. As Marano scrolls over each candidate’s name, an electronic voice reads it aloud and repeats the choice once she has selected it.

After selecting a mayoral candidate, Marano wonders how to proceed, but the process gets easier on the councillor selection. By the time she chooses a school board trustee candidate, she’s got the hang of it. Finally she reviews and confirms her choices and the VAT marks her ballot, which would be tabulated with the rest of Toronto’s paper ballots.

“I find it very easy,” Marano said. “It was well structured and it has speech, which is something I need… It’s accessible.”

Wheatley notes that the machine doesn’t meet the needs of voters with both extreme hearing and vision impairments simply because the technology isn’t yet available.

But Sandra Carpenter, executive director of Centre for Independent Living in Toronto (CILT), says there is always room for improvement when it comes to accessible voting.

“I think we’ve made slow improvements over time, but it’s not good enough,” she said. “With a lot of noise you can make it accessible.”

One polling location in each ward will offer the Voter Assist Terminals during the weekend advance vote on Oct. 16 and 17 and on Election Day. Eligible voters must call 416-338-1111 to make arrangements.