New app empowers voters with disabilities

Brink Election Guide app co-founded by Oak Park native

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By Stacey Sheridan

Staff Reporter

If people with disabilities voted at the same rate as non-disabled people, there would be about 2.35 million more voters in the United States, according to a 2018 Rutgers University study. 

"That is a huge, huge amount of people that certainly can swing a statewide election; it can swing a national election as well," said Stephen Puiszis, Oak Park native and co-founder of Brink Election Guide, a new mobile app that makes the voting process more accessible.

Voters with disabilities face serious barriers at the polls, from inaccessible polling places to being improperly turned away by poll workers. Disenfranchisement is common for people with disabilities, even as one in four adults have a disability of some kind in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

"I think it's our responsibility to help remove some of those barriers for them," said Puiszis, whose sister has Down syndrome. 

The Brink Election Guide, available for download for iPhones and Android devices, empowers and mobilizes voters with disabilities to participate in the democratic process without hindrance and works in both national and state elections. And the app is entirely free.

"We give you all the important steps you need to do to actually get your ballot counted," said Puiszis, an alumnus of Fenwick High School. 

Brink Election Guide strictly adheres to accessibility guidelines set forth by the World Wide Web Consortium, the primary international standards organization for the internet. It has a colorblind-friendly color scheme and large text. The app also uses text-to-speak for the visually impaired and is conducive to people with dexterity issues. The content is currently in English but will be available in Spanish by Nov. 3.

"We are looking to make this more accessible to people with different types of cognitive needs and make it simpler and easier to understand," said Puiszis.

Using easily understandable language, the non-partisan app offers sample ballots, voting guides, important dates. Users can learn more about candidates and referenda then save that information so its readily available upon voting.

The app will even take users directly to their secretary of state's website where they can register to vote online. The National Disability Rights Network (NDRN), a group of disability policy and advocacy lawyers, provided advice to help ensure the app's content is non-partisan. 

Brink Election Guide also offers resources to handle issues that may arise when voting, such as if the accessible voting booth was not set up or was located at the top of a staircase, out of reach of people in wheelchairs. 

"We provide a series of phone resources you can call in real time," said Puiszis. "Many states, through NDRN, will have election day hotlines to help people."

The app also provides recommendations on what to say to advocate for yourself and your rights, using information from the app's legal partners and NDRN. Brink Election Guide provides pre-written scripts containing the piece of election law corresponding to particular scenarios.

For instance, if a poll worker tries to bar a voter with a disability from taking a personal aide into the booth with them -- which is illegal under the Voting Rights Act -- the app has a rebuttal ready to go with that information. 

"We help people advocate for themselves in situations where something like this might arise, which is unfortunately all too frequent and all too common," said Puiszis.

The company behind the app, Brink, is a registered 501c3, co-founded in 2018 by Puiszis and his business partner, Dylan Bulkeley-Krane, who served as the disability rights policy coordinator in Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign. The World Institute on Disability sponsors Brink fiscally.

To test the app, Brink partnered with Opportunity Knocks, a River Forest-based non-profit that provides support to teens and young adults who have developmental disabilities. Puiszis serves on the auxiliary board of Opportunity Knocks.

Brink also conducted interviews with a number of people within the disability community not only to get their feedback on the app, but to better address their needs within it and to learn about the issues they've encountered. 

"There's some pretty terrible stories," said Puiszis.

Testimonies from people with disabilities fortified the Brink team's desire to address disenfranchisement of people with disabilities. Puiszis recalls a particular experience someone in a wheelchair shared with the Brink team; the polling site had a ramp, but the accessible voting booth was placed at the top of two flights of stairs.

"They were faced with basically the choice of, 'Do I ask someone to carry me up the stairs?' Or, "Do I have to get out of my wheelchair and crawl up the stairs?" said Puiszis. "You can't help but feel that there is injustice and inequity in our voting process."

Ensuring that no person with a disability finds themselves in a similar dilemma while exercising their constitutional right to vote serves as the impetus behind the creation of Brink Election Guide. 

"It's important that in 2020 as a nation," Puiszis said, "we focus on ameliorating these accessibility issues for people with disabilities so that they can have equal access to voting."

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