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Embracing the right to vote

Oregon woman willing to go to any length to ensure her vote counts
Woman typing on keyboard
Jan Staehely says regularly updating her signature at the state elections office is an extra step but is worth it in order to have her vote counted. Staehely, who has cerebral palsy, was surprised to learn her ballot was rejected in a 2014 election because signature did not match the one she used to register to vote. (OHSU/Kristyna Wentz-Graff)

Like tens of thousands of other Oregonians, Jan Staehely carefully researched various ballot measures and candidates for office, then cast her ballot in 2014 -- or so she thought.

A month following the election, she was notified that the signature on her ballot did not match the one she had used when she first registered to vote, years prior.

“I wasn’t surprised by the differing penmanship,” said Staehely, who  – for more than 50 years – doesn’t recall ever having a consistent signature. “What did surprise me, however, was that because of this, my vote did not count.”

At birth, Staehely was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, a condition that affects speech and movement. She uses a wheelchair for mobility and assistive technologies for communication.

Unfortunately, roadblocks such as these are commonplace for the more than 40 million Americans living with various disabilities.

“While we don’t suspect that these obstacles are intentional, the fact is they exist. And because of this, the livelihood and basic rights of many of our friends and neighbors are greatly compromised,” said Rhonda Eppelsheimer, M.S.W., L.C.S.W., co-director of the OHSU University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, a center within the Institute on Development and Disability that supports the health and quality of life of Oregonians with disabilities.

Two women talking
Jan Staehely (left) talks with co-worker Rhonda Eppelsheimer, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. (OHSU/Kristyna Wentz-Graff)

To help remove these barriers, Eppelsheimer says it is necessary that more people embrace the benefits of difference. 

“As a society, we tend to make assumptions about people’s abilities, rather than embrace the strengths that they offer. Normalizing difference will help to make such basic things as job security, health care access and voting more universally available to all individuals, despite disability, race or socioeconomic status.”

While the premise may seem simple, Eppelsheimer says we, as a society, still have a long road ahead.

In the meantime, Staehely continues to embrace her individuality and is passionate about sharing her perspectives in order to better serve her community. She visits the state elections office to update her signature and ensure that her voice is heard each voting period without complaint.

“Despite this extra step, and all of the planning that it requires, I don’t mind. It is worth it to me,” she said proudly. “However, I do look forward to a time when the burden of navigating these barriers doesn’t rest on my own shoulders alone.”

Person typing on keyboard
Jan Staehely uses a keyboard to talk with co-workers at her OHSU office. (OHSU/Kristyna Wentz-Graff)

In addition to receiving care at OHSU, Jan Staehely has worked as a communications consultant and blogger at the OHSU Institute on Development and Disability for 20 years.

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