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Like many people with autism, Owen Xiao doesn't say much.
But he still has a voice, and Lauren Thome wants to make sure it's heard on Election Day.
Xiao registered to vote for the first time at a registration drive Thome organized for people with disabilities on Oct. 25.
He said it felt “pretty good.”
The drive, held at the Developmental Pathways office space on Inverness Drive in northern Douglas County, ran from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., enlisting three volunteers per three-hour shift. The goal was to give disabled citizens, a group often left out of the political conversation, the chance to speak up.
“They're stakeholders, just like everyone else,” she said. “They should be heard.”
In 2010, the Englewood resident started Garden Inc., a nonprofit that provides after-school activities, employment programs and other integration services for between 100 and 150 clients a week, getting clients out of their home and into their neighborhoods.
The next place she wants to take people with intellectual disabilities is the ballot box.
A 2013 study from Lisa Schur, a professor at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, found that people with disabilities vote at a lower rate than other segments of the population. Approximately 3 million eligible disabled citizens didn't participate in the 2012 election.
Reasons for the low turnout range from poor accessibility for those with physical impairments to attitudes of poll workers who question the eligibility of a voter who arrives with someone to assist them in the ballot booth.
While Thome said she isn't anticipating any problems on Election Day, Nov. 8, she is reaching out to county election officials and attorneys in the field to ensure things go smoothly when she and her volunteers get out the vote.
“No one can be denied their vote because the people around them are unsure of their intellectual capabilities,” she said. “We're hoping we don't have any issues but if we do we're happy to go out and advocate for them.”
Anyone able to “direct” their vote, by speaking, signing or pointing at a ballot is legally able to vote, and Thome said Garden's volunteers are professionally trained to modify information to help their clients understand their choices.
The staff also calls clients to ensures they've received their ballots, arrange transportation to polling places and in some cases, accompany clients into the voting booth to help them cast their vote.
What they don't do is offer suggestions or opinions.
Caitlyn Schall, the Garden employee who helped Xiao complete his registration, said the many ballot initiatives and amendments on this year's ballot make her services especially necessary.
“It's a really daunting process to begin with,” she said. “It was hard enough for my boyfriend — it took him two days to fill it out.”
At day's end, the drive registered five new voters. It may not seem like a lot, but for Thome, and those five newly registered voters, the drive was a success.
“We were able to register five individuals who wouldn't have otherwise been given the opportunity” to vote, she said. “We'll count it as a win.”
Thome said Garden will host registration drives in future elections, and they're still available to help anyone they didn't see at the drive vote this year.
“We're working to build a conversation in the community, and in two years we'll have that conversation again,” she said. “We've started something that will only get bigger and better.”
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