To everyone that’s asked me what I’ve been doing this summer, I’ve had a simple answer: “I’m working in an office.” And, well, that’s the truth. I’m working for a non-profit called Disability Rights Maine, Maine’s protection and advocacy group and part of a much larger group of similar organizations. DRM is small – under 30 employees, I’d guess. I work in that office. I do office work. I conduct research, I print out reports, and I sit at my desk writing blog posts for my scholarships. An office.
Yesterday, though, I got the opportunity to leave the office. DRM does great work, they really really do, but most of that work is conducted from an air conditioned office in the state capitol. We enforce local and federal regulations across the entire state – yesterday, I got to see those regulations in action. I drove up north about an hour and a half, and, if you know Maine, that hour and a half makes all the difference. Town populations go from 100,000 to 1,000 in about 75 miles. I was going to conduct surveys on two polling places – you know, to make sure that handicap voters have access to accessible parking spots, entrances, etc. The first town office I went to was attached to their fire department. There was one woman working when I arrived (around 11:30am on a Tuesday) and she showed me around. She showed me where voters park, where they enter the fire station, where they vote, and where they leave. I asked if there were accessible parking spots available to handicap voters, and she just stared at me. “Yeah,” she said, “right here.” She pointed to the parking lot. I asked if she had signage to indicate where these handicap parking spots were located. She just looked at me again. “No,” she said, “we never have any more than two people voting a day. There’s no need.” I marked down about 6 other violations before leaving.
The next town was similar – small violations here and there, and a town employee who seemed frustrated with the fact that I was there in the first place. “We only had 50 people vote in the presidential election,” she told me, “if anyone needs help getting in or out of the building, my husband and I are here to help them. And I know exactly who those people are going to be. We can’t afford to upgrade what we have.” To her credit, her polling place was pretty darn close to perfect. But I understood what she meant. Who was I, the proper state employee, to tell her how to run her town? My rules and regulations were made in an air conditioned office across the street form two separate Starbucks. She knew her town, and knew her people, and the bottom line was that I did not.
So, is policy for me? Maybe, but I can’t help feeling like in cases like these, policy doesn’t belong. I couldn’t help but feel like an intruder, and although I was working on behalf of the disenfranchised, it sure as hell didn’t feel like it.