America has gone from covered wagons to landing men on the moon, Dottie Mellott told a Maryland House committee, but the people sitting in wheelchairs behind her are still-unable to vote because they can't get into their local polling places.
Five of the six voters who followed Mrs. Mellott to the podium testified that they had had to file for absentee ballots because their polling places were more inaccessible to their wheelchairs than the moon was to astronauts.
"Absentee ballots are meant for sick people and those far away," testified Rhoda Eskwith. "I am neither sick nor away."
Two bills are pending that together would allow the estimated 270,000 handicapped citizens to vote outside their precincts at polling place equipped for wheelchairs and other ambulatory aids.
Sponsored by De. Elizabeth S. Smith (R-Anne Arundel) and Del. Donald F. Munson (R-Washington), the bills are the result of a meeting of members of the Governor's Commission for Employment of the Handicapped and the product of a new militancy among handicapped citizens.
"I don't know if it was by accident, but I was impressed with our President's address when he mentioned the ethnics and the handicapped," said Mrs, Mellott who said she had dashed off a six-page letter to President Jimmy Carter before his inaugural address.
And like black protestors during the 60s, the handicapped citizens told the delegates here today that their freedom and happiness hinged on the right to vote - a right denied them by "insensitive architects and insensitive officials."
"If I am denied my right to vote because I do not have a barrier-free polling place in my precinct or because I am not allowed to change to a precinct with an accessible structure, how can I consider myself to be part of a democracy?" asked Patrick A. Rivelli, who is confined to a wheelchair.
Rivelli and other witnesses also pointed to the countless other citizens afflited with severe arthritis, heart ailments, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy or cerebral palsy who have as much difficulty climbing flights of stairs as those voters in wheelchairs.
"It was devastating for us," said Mrs. Mellott, a member of the Easter Seal Council.
If the General Assembly's Committee on Constitutional and Administrative Law gives the bills favorable readings, the Assembly is expected to pass them into law. There were no opponents to the bills today and the delegates asked only technical and legal questions during the hearing.
Clara Clow told the delegates that until she was confined to a wheelchair last year she had been an election judge and an integral part of the election process. "Because of polio I wore leg braces from the age of 2 . . . but until I had to use this wheelchair I didn't know how truly excluded the handicapped voters were from the process."