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Goffstown resident pushes for better handicap access for voting

GOFFSTOWN - As a polling site on election day, Goffstown High School is technically compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act access requirements, but more could be done.

That was the conclusion of Jillian Shedd of the Governor's Commission on Disability and Wayne Perreault, a Goffstown resident and longtime advocate for the disabled, during a walk through the high school this week. They were joined by Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Manning, Town Administrator Susan Desruisseaux and Town Clerk Cathy Ball.

"This has to be fair and accessible for everybody," said Perreault. "We should take the time this morning to go over the checklist and see what can be done. The ADA doesn't have to cost a fortune. I'm just hoping we can all get something done here today."

Among the options being considered is a temporary ramp or curb cut in front of the section of the building that houses the gymnasium and the cafeteria, additional handicapped parking spaces in front of the gym, additional signs pointing out access routes during elections and installation of a temporary ramp off a loading dock in the rear of the building closer to the room where voting takes place, along with additional handicapped parking spots there.

The meeting was called at the urging of Perreault, who has long advocated on behalf of the disabled for better access to public buildings. Perreault, who had a kidney transplant last August and suffered from neuropathy, said the distance between handicapped parking spaces at the high school and where voting takes place is about 300 feet.

"That's way too far to walk for someone who has a disability," Perreault said. "The hidden disability thing - it's always been an issue for a lot of people."

Shedd said that while the Governor's Commission on Disability has no enforcement power, it does make recommendations on how a town or school department can either comply with ADA guidelines or improve access to polling sites if the town is already compliant.

Shedd added that communities are free to take steps that go "above and beyond" what the ADA requires, and often that means volunteer participation.

Ball said about 50 students typically volunteer their time during elections to assist people as they're voting. That includes students who use two wheelchairs from the nurse's office to shuttle people who have difficulty walking from the school's handicapped accessible entrance to the cafeteria where voting takes place. In addition, she said, those students are easily recognizable because they wear T-shirts identifying themselves as election volunteers.

Manning said difficulties with ADA compliance often arise because public buildings are not necessarily designed as polling places. "The challenge is we don't build buildings for voting," Manning said. "We build them for other things, and this presents challenges for local officials."

Still, Perreault said he doesn't think enough has been done locally to remove all the election day barriers to voting for disabled people. "I know a number of people who feel this way but are afraid to speak out," said Perreault. "I don't think it has to be this way. I think we can do better."

Desruisseaux said the next step is to wait for a report from Shedd that will suggest recommendations on how to improve voter access for the disabled. Once she gets that report, she will present options to the Board of Selectmen.

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