Deaf voters in Bexar County only given access to interpreter assistance at two voting sites

Disability Rights Texas attorney: voters should be able to request assistance at site of their choice

SAN ANTONIO – Deaf voters in Bexar County can only get interpreter assistance at two polling locations, despite disability advocates saying voters should have the ability to get help at the location of their choice.

Deaf people who rely on American Sign Language may need an interpreter’s help at the polls since English is, for them, a second language, and their ability to actually read the ballot can vary widely.

While voters can bring their own interpreter to the polls, those who cannot should contact their local elections officials to request assistance, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacquelyn Callanen said ASL interpreter assistance is available at the Bexar County Elections Department on Frio Street through a video remote interpreter (VRI) service, and a live interpreter is available at the San Antonio College Victory Center.

Though there are 48 early voting locations, and 302 planned for Election Day, those two sites are the only places ASL interpreter assistance will be available during both early voting and Election Day, Callanen said.

“We’ve worked well with the deaf community. We’ve been inclusive. And they said that, like their meetings, their organizations are held in this area,” Callanen said.

Disability advocates, though, say deaf voters who need assistance should not be limited to fewer sites than other voters.

Lia Davis, senior attorney with Disability Rights Texas, said deaf voters who need an interpreter should be able to call ahead and request one at the location and time they want to vote. Davis said she didn’t know enough about any requests for assistance and associated denials in Bexar County to be able to say if county election officials were breaking the law.

But I do think that if it’s being requested at a certain site and they’re saying, ‘No, we’re not going to offer it at the site. It needs to be offered only at this other location,’ then they aren’t being provided equal access, which is required under the Americans with Disabilities Act,” Davis said.

Kay Chiodo, executive director of the No Barriers Communication, said her nonprofit -- which advocates for deaf, hard of hearing and deaf-blind people -- has been getting numerous messages from deaf voters who are concerned about being able to access nearby voting centers. Those seeking assistance, she said, have been told they need to go to the Bexar County Elections Department.

Callanen’s comments about the SAC Victory Center during a Monday morning news conference was the first time Chiodo says she had heard there was any other option. But whether the availability of interpreter services is limited to one polling location or two, Chiodo said it’s not acceptable.

You can’t choose one disability group and say, ‘We’re not going to give you access to vote.’ That’s not legal,” Chiodo said.

Chiodo wants to see the elections department buy enough iPads to make VRI services available at every voting location. Though she is also the CEO of Deaf Link, the company that’s currently contracted to provide those VRI services at the Frio Street site, Chiodo said she’s not speaking up because of the contract, which she says other companies could also perform.

“Our goal is access to vote. It’s their right. It’s not about ‘Am I going to lose business?’ If that happens,” Chiodo said, shrugging, “I’m sorry. The most important (thing) is the deaf community can vote.”

Callanen said the elections office may end up buying iPads like Chiodo wants, but it won’t be for this election.

“No, we haven’t ordered them yet,” Callanen said. “But again, we’re waiting to see as we get through all of the COVID precautions and all the extra expenses. Then when this election is over, then we’ll be able to purchase moving forward.”

Related: How Bexar County voter turnout in 2020 compares to last presidential election

About the Author:

Garrett Brnger is a reporter with KSAT 12.