• October 30, 2015

Helping Deaf Voters in Tennessee

by Anna Bass, DRT 

Since 2002 DRT has collaborated with the Secretary of State Division of Elections to ensure that Tennessee’s election process is fully accessible to voters with disabilities. This collaboration has included educating both Tennesseans with disabilities about their legal right to fully participate in the election process and county election officials about how to meet the needs of voters with disabilities.  

Some of the ways in which DRT has accomplished these goals include:

  • Conducting biennial statewide “V TE TN!” Train-the-Trainer conferences on voting rights. This program utilizes materials adapted from training materials provided by the National Technical Assistance Center for Voting & Cognitive Access and was co-sponsored by the Tennessee Division of Elections. The toolkit consists of seven sections: Introduction, How Voting Fits into Life, Registering to Vote, Voting Responsibilities, How Do You Cast A Ballot, Supporting Accessible Voting, and Training Evaluation. Included with the training toolkit are group activities and handouts, along with supplementary handouts and materials.  
  • Conducting poll site accessibility surveys across the state during active elections. Upon completion of accessibility surveys, letters are sent to both the County Election Administrator and the State HAVA Attorney highlighting identified issues and suggested modifications and solutions, where appropriate.  
  • Attending quarterly State Election Commission meetings. Observe and participate in dialogue on state voting business. 
  • Monitoring legislation and educating policymakers. Monitor and educate about the implications of proposed legislation with potential to impact voters with disabilities. Additionally, in response to any new voting-related laws in Tennessee, DRT collaborates with the State HAVA Attorney to disseminate media and marketing tools aimed at enhancing public awareness of these changes.
  • Conducting Outreach to Election Officials. At the request of the Tennessee Association of County Election Officials (TACEO) officers, DRT staff participates in the TACEO Summer Seminar each year in Nashville. Outreach is conducted from a display table which includes DRT materials and Election Accessibility posters/buttons. DRT’s “Need Assistance” posters, stickers, and buttons were designed in collaboration with the state and are displayed to offer public awareness of disability assistance at the polls. Posters are displayed in each polling site, and stickers or buttons are worn by at least one poll official or volunteer designated to serve voters with disabilities. Additionally, DRT, in conjunction with the State, designed and printed “Voting Bill of Rights” posters which were provided to county election officials for dissemination within their counties to schools, community agencies, etc. 
  • Developing a Poll Worker Training Tool. “Helping Tennessee Vote: A Poll Worker’s Guide to Assisting Voters with Disabilities” is a thirty-two page booklet that addresses three main areas: access, assistance, and accommodations. A resources section provides useful definitions, contact information, and the TN Bill of Voting Rights. The poll worker guide, which continues to be disseminated upon request, was the foundation of the training provided to poll workers.

Working as partners with the Secretary of State Division of Elections has greatly improved the voting process for people with disabilities in Tennessee. However, there are approximately 125,000 Deaf people in Tennessee, the vast majority of whom are eligible to vote. Unfortunately DRT determined that many Deaf individuals do not exercise their right to vote due to the barriers experienced in the voting process. 

American Sign Language (ASL) is the primary language used by many Deaf Tennesseans. Because ASL is grammatically and syntactically different from English, some Deaf individuals may need written information translated into ASL to allow for effective communication. For this reason, when accessing the voting process some Deaf individuals do not currently have equal access to other Tennessee voters. The voting process includes voter registration, information regarding issues, and candidate information. In addition, poll workers lack sufficient knowledge and training to adequately respond to the communication and access needs of Deaf voters.

In response to these identified barriers, DRT again partnered with the Tennessee Secretary of State Division of Elections to develop an Effective Communication in Voting Campaign. This campaign provides training to Deaf Tennesseans about voting rights through a training video which was developed in collaboration with Tennessee Association of the Deaf, Bridges in Nashville, and Knoxville Center of the Deaf. (Insert link to YouTube video). 

In addition to the video, this campaign educates election officials and poll workers about the needs of Deaf voters through the development of educational materials.  For this purpose, DRT has created a tip sheet specifically for election administrators and poll workers about the communication and access needs of Deaf voters. This tip sheet has been provided to election officials in all 95 counties across the state of Tennessee.

DRT will continue to connect Deaf leaders from across the state with Election Administrators in targeted counties so that they may work together to provide equal access to the voting process to Deaf voters.  Additionally, we will provide dissemination of our training video through social media outlets. The final step of this campaign will be to conduct trainings for Deaf leaders, voters, and potential voters within identified high population counties in Tennessee.



West Tennessee Deaf Resource Centers:

Middle Tennessee Deaf Resource Centers:

East Tennessee Deaf Resource Centers:

Disability Rights Tennessee (DRT) is a nonprofit legal services organization that provides free legal advocacy services to protect the rights of Tennesseans with disabilities.

Middle Tennessee (Admin Office)

2 International Plaza, Suite 825
Nashville, TN 37217

Phone: 615-298-1080
Fax: 615-298-2046

East Tennessee

9050 Executive Park Drive, Suite 101-B
Knoxville, TN 37923

Phone: 865-670-2944
Fax: 865-470-7028

West Tennessee

1407 Union Avenue, Suite 1015
Memphis, TN 38104

Phone: 901-458-6013
Fax: 901-249-2933