"I cried - that was my reaction," said Jessie Jane Lewis, 55, a Manayunk performance artist who was one of the suit's nine local plaintiffs. "There was so much hurt and so much emotion that was built up."
Lewis, who says she has missed just two elections in 34 years, has multiple sclerosis and has used a motorized scooter for about three years. To vote at the local VFW hall, she has had to drive her van several blocks in hilly Manayunk, then have someone unload the ramp she brings with her and set it up twice so she can ride up one step to a landing and then up another step.
Under the proposed settlement, by Jan. 1, 2006, each of the city's 1,682 polling places will have at least one electronic voting machine equipped with earphones and audio instructions for use by voters who are blind or visually impaired.
The city also would create a Polling Place Access Committee to evaluate approximately 800 of the 1,682 polling places in 66 wards that are not accessible to people who use wheelchairs.
The committee's recommendations - portable ramps, temporary building modifications, or relocation of polling places to accessible buildings - and implementation must be completed by May 1, 2006.
Stephen F. Gold, a veteran Center City disabilities lawyer involved in the suit, called the agreement the best possible in an old city such as Philadelphia.
"We will be the first city in the country that will have 100 percent accessible voting for blind people and as much as is reasonably feasible for those in wheelchairs," Gold said.
Jeffrey M. Scott, a divisional deputy city solicitor in the Civil Rights Unit, called the proposed agreement "a win for everyone."
"The [federal] law is going to change in 2006," Scott added. "We're going to get started on it earlier and get something up and running."
Scott referred to the "Help America Vote Act of 2002," an overhaul of the nation's voting system that was signed last October by President Bush.
Under the $3.9 billion measure, the federal government for the first time will give states money to create computerized voter-registration lists, replace antiquated machines, educate poll workers, and ensure access for the disabled.
The federal class-action lawsuit was filed in April 2001 under federal disabilities laws and challenged Philadelphia's award of a $19.3 million contract for more than 3,500 state-of-the-art, touch-screen voting machines.
Contact staff writer Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2658 or firstname.lastname@example.org.