Lou Ann Blake, director of analysis packages on the Nationwide Federation of the Blind, with an indication mannequin of a ballot-marking system that assists visually impaired voters with a headset and a keypad. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Solar/TNS)

BALTIMORE — Lou Ann Blake was shocked when she discovered she was blind.

“My largest concern was that individuals would inform me that I couldn’t do stuff,” she stated.

She beloved horseback driving and was afraid folks would say it was unsafe. She feared being unable to drive.

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Now the director of packages on the Nationwide Federation of the Blind, headquartered in Baltimore, Blake, 63, has retinitis pigmentosa, which led to the lack of most of her imaginative and prescient in her early 30s.

At first, she lived her life as if she weren’t blind. That modified after listening to a regulation professor blame against the law dedicated by a younger man on his dad and mom’ blindness.

“The truth that his dad and mom had been blind had nothing to do with the truth that he dedicated against the law,” she stated. “I noticed at that second that I wanted to be with folks like me.”

Blake has carried that identification into her position at NFB, the advocacy group for the blind began in 1940.

Certainly one of her most influential initiatives has been defending voting rights for the blind.

Blake stated blind voters should not handled equally after they solid their ballots in individual.

Blind voters can solid their ballots in individual throughout early voting and on Nov. 8 utilizing paper ballots or ballot-marking units, Blake stated.

Poll-marking units use a management pad and headphones to relate the poll. Blake stated the present system violates blind voters’ privateness and anonymity. Whereas the ballot-marking system permits blind voters to vote independently, it prints a protracted, skinny poll, which differs from the normal one and will permit blind voters’ ballots to be recognized, she stated.

Blake performed a key position in a 2021 lawsuit that pushed Maryland to alter these practices. The state agreed to pay $230,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by NFB and blind voters alleging that the state’s digital voting units had been undermining voter confidentiality and violating the Individuals with Disabilities Act.

Blake stated she helped negotiate elements of the settlement, together with that the state should pay NFB $2,000 to supply an tutorial video for ballot employees. The video, titled “Empowering the Blind Voter,” may be seen on YouTube.

The state additionally agreed to put in two ballot-marking units in at the least half of all polling websites, invite all voters to make use of them and be certain that at the least 10 achieve this.

All Maryland polling locations throughout early voting and Election Day could have at the least two ballot-marking units, stated Nikki Charlson, deputy administrator of the Maryland State Board of Elections.

Information from the 2022 main election reveals that 33.6% of voters who voted in individual used a ballot-marking system to make their picks, she added.

Even so, Ronza Othman, president of the Nationwide Federation of the Blind of Maryland, stated the overall variety of blind voters in Maryland is unknown as a result of disclosure of a incapacity isn’t a requirement to vote.

Joel Zimba, of Oakenshawe, stated he’s sure his votes have been recognized by ballot judges when he used the ballot-marking system as a result of he’s the one blind voter in his neighborhood. He stated the election board releases knowledge on the quantity of people that use the ballot-marking system at every polling place.

Zimba needs the state to require everybody to make use of the ballot-marking units. About two years in the past when he voted at Margaret Brent Elementary in Charles Village, the ballot-marking system was down, he stated. As a substitute of 5 minutes, it took him about 45 minutes to vote as a result of the ballot employee struggled to arrange the machine.

Blake stated NFB will foyer the Maryland Normal Meeting subsequent yr to allow these abroad, these within the army and people with disabilities to return their ballots electronically.

The Individuals with Incapacity Act requires these with disabilities to be given equal alternatives to vote, stated Jessica Weber, a lawyer on the Baltimore-based regulation agency Brown, Goldstein & Levy who represented NFB within the 2021 lawsuit.

States that permit voters with a incapacity to return their ballots electronically embody Colorado, Massachusetts, Utah, Washington and West Virginia, in line with the Nationwide Convention of State Legislatures.

Blake is initially from Wilmington, Del. Now she lives in Federal Hill. She graduated with an engineering diploma from Montana School of Mineral Science and Expertise in 1982. She studied regulation at Widener College Delaware Regulation College in Wilmington.

Earlier than her present position at NFB, her different positions included analysis specialist and mission supervisor. She joined NFB in 2005.

She spent a month receiving coaching on the Louisiana Heart for the Blind, the place she discovered abilities, corresponding to cooking and touring. Making ready a meal for 30 folks was a requirement for commencement.

“I benefited rather a lot from that,” she stated. “(Being blind) is one thing that individuals have to return to phrases with in their very own time.”

© 2022 The Baltimore Solar
Distributed by Tribune Content material Company, LLC

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