On October 7, 2015 at the Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the University of Toronto’s Students Union (UTSU), you will be deciding whether to make a substantial change to the democratic process at this institution: namely a change from paper ballot voting to computerized and online voting. The change to computerized and online voting is presented in the motion as “improving accessibility,” creating a “fairer system,” and removing barriers to participation in campus life. It is the opinion of Students for Barrier-free Access (SBA) that these claims misappropriate the discourse of disability in misleading ways. Accessibility is not a statement; accessibility is a practice. It requires a deliberate and meaningful engagement with, and involvement of, disabled people.
With respect to the voting process, we believe that paper ballots allow for accessibility needs to be met more efficiently than computerized and online voting. The process of holding a paper ballot vote requires the union to address the physical, attitudinal, and informational barriers that exist on campus through the active inclusion of disabled voters, thereby ensuring that the process is accessible to all students. Computerized voting at home, even if it sounds convenient to some, actually alienates persons with disabilities from participating fully in the voting process at U of T and relegates us to the margins of the electoral process.
In fact, we believe this proposed change will actually create additional barriers to accessibility. The motion does not clearly indicate how computerized and online voting systems will be made accessible. For example, if a student requires a screen-reader and uses Job Access With Speech (JAWS) software for blind people), or other accessible technology, will they be able to vote online or at a computerized voting booth on campus? How will accessibility features be incorporated into the computerized and online voting systems? These concerns should be addressed before members can make an informed decision on this issue. These questions must be answered before a new voting process is introduced.
Furthermore, we think that it is irresponsible that a new voting system that is purportedly “accessible” is being voted on without first consulting representatives of students with disabilities on campus, like SBA. Again, accessibility is a practice, and one of its primary tenets is the inclusion of disabled people in the decision-making process. This lack of consultation creates barriers that will need to be addressed retroactively. Not only is this unnecessary, the issues behind this change are unavoidable.
Sometimes, accessibility sometimes means using materials that are characterized as wasteful or unsustainable. Although paper balloting can be inaccessible for some disabled people, this inaccessibility can often be remedied by having trained staff willing to help disabled people fill in their ballots. This offers disabled students the opportunity to engage in the process of voting similar to their peers. Finally, we do not discount that the voting process uses “enormous” amounts of paper; however, we do not think that sustainability can or should be used as an argument for reducing access or creating barriers. Paper is surely more sustainable as a recyclable product than a system that contributes electronic waste from the eventual disposal of laptops, iPads, tablets, and other devices.
It is SBA’s opinion that members of the UTSU should vote down the motion on computerized voting as it fails to outline a truly accessible voting process, was not proposed in consultation with disabled students, contains no qualified accountability measures, and does not sufficiently meet the needs of students at this institution. As disabled students, we want to vote alongside our peers. We want to meet you in line and discuss the issues. We want the opportunity to check-off a box and we want to slide our paper ballots into the slot – hoping that our opinions are respected, encouraged and counted. Voting is essential to the democratic process and hasty and unorganized changes, as those proposed in this motion, will affect this process. Please vote down this motion and encourage UTSU to continue with the paper ballot system.
*Students for Barrier-free Access is a non-profit, University of Toronto student-levy organization that advocates for equity, access, and the rights of disabled students on campus. SBA and its allies work towards eliminating physical, informational, and attitudinal barriers on campus and in the wider community.