A growing group of voters

Program aims to help the developmentally disabled use their political power

Voting is a normal activity for most people, but for the developmentally disabled like Danette Schons, it’s unusual. A new program aims to change that.

Voting is a normal activity for most people, but for the developmentally disabled like Danette Schons, it’s unusual. A new program aims to change that.

Photo By Heather gomes

A seemingly normal event occurred on a sunny Tuesday afternoon recently, when Chico resident Danette Schons, 50, drove a mile in her brown Ford Explorer to cast her ballot at the Church on the Esplanade. She beamed afterward, because her vote helped defeat Measure A, which would have moved the date of Chico City Council elections.

What was unusual was that Schons was born with a comprehension disorder called dysphasia and is one of a small group of developmentally disabled adults in the North State who actually vote.

That may change radically beginning with next November’s election, as a new “Vote!” project seeks to educate, assist and register for voting all 1,600 developmentally disabled adults in Butte County. The project is being overseen by the government-sponsored Far Northern Regional Center, which seeks to empower developmentally disabled adults.

“It’s coming,” said FNRC representative Mary Ann Weston, referring to the Vote! project. “And it will affect everyone in our system, including all clients and their parents.”

The larger FNRC goal is to facilitate voting for all 3,990 clients within its nine-county Northern California jurisdiction. Considering that many local ballot issues and political contests are decided by only a few hundred votes, this undertaking could have a significant impact. A recent survey conducted by FNRC shows that 70 percent of its clients have never voted. The main reasons were a lack of knowledge of how to vote and which issues or candidates to vote for.

An elaborate series of a dozen programs is planned to fulfill the project, such as voter-registration help, teach-ins and mock voting sessions. The schedule is available on the FNRC website (FarNorthernRC.org) and will be publicly announced in its upcoming newsletter, to be released in early July.

“The teach-ins will be like a high-school civics class,” Weston said. Starting in September, they will be presented by six trained client advocates from FNRC’s subsidiary We Care a Lot Foundation to groups and individual clients.

One of WCALF’s staffers, Brandi Seaters, will help train the teachers and says several of them will be deputized as registrars in order to register clients to vote. During the teach-ins clients will be given handouts such as voter pamphlets, sample ballots and registration forms.

“I really hope this opens people’s eyes about the right to vote,” said Seaters.

Weston emphasized that the educators will not take positions or discuss issues or candidates this year, but will instead stress the importance of voting as a right and responsibility.

Another FNRC client-led group, People First, is planning seminars next year to educate clients on specific issues and candidates for the 2012 presidential elections.

“They’ll be presented by a neutral organization like the League of Women Voters,” Weston said.

A theatrical flavor will be added to Vote! by clients who are also stage actors. An original play about voting will be performed by FNRC clients enrolled in Chico’s Theatre in the Now acting troupe, to be shown in August or September. Videos of it will be available to anyone in California.

Adding further creativity will be a juried poster-making contest with a voting theme. Prizes will include professional framing of winning entries and gift certificates.

Of the six peer teachers for this year’s teach-ins, the three from Chico—Kim Subia, 31, Michelle Phillips, 31, and Cory Smith, 34—have all been voting since they were 18.

“When I turned 18 my parents gave me the option and told me how good it would be if the disabled voted,” said Subia, who suffers from seizures and very poor eyesight. “I hope our clients will learn, then help their friends to vote and keep the chain going.”

Phillips, who has a learning disability, is eager to educate clients about absentee balloting.

“Most don’t know that they can still vote even if they can’t get to the polls,” she said.

The third Chico peer teacher, Smith, is extremely well-spoken despite a genetic brain disorder that was compounded by an accident. He said he was surprised that the survey revealed more disabled adults who don’t vote but are registered versus those who are not registered at all.

“The disabled not voting is a trend I want to help reverse,” he said.

“We’re very excited about the whole Vote! program,” said Seaters. “The NRA has 2 million U.S. members, and they really make a difference on issues, so why shouldn’t our clients?”