By Vincent Montoya-Armanios
Shouldn’t parents, college students, people with disabilities, and people without cars have a say? The physical inaccessibility of public affairs is an inexcusable barrier to a functional democracy in Bucks County.
I’ve spent the last 5 years in Ohio and Massachusetts, but my heart has always been in the beautiful, cigarette-littered streets of Levittown. Distance has kept me from following what our politicians are up to, and from offering my own ideas. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, for the first time in my adult life, I’ve had the opportunity to attend Bristol Township council meetings, prison oversight board meetings, lectures, and other events. Students studying elsewhere shouldn’t be barred from attending community meetings just because they can’t be there in person. Holding meetings virtually would allow students and distant residents to keep in touch with local politics, which builds attachment to the community and makes them more likely to return. Young people are one of the most underrepresented groups in Bucks County, and they generally hold progressive views that often go unspoken. Allowing them to attend virtually will diversify the public conversation and make decisions more representative of community viewpoints.
Furthermore, the people who can’t afford a car or a babysitter are not only the people who have the most to offer to our representatives, but are the people who should be leading. Doylestown is where much of the politics of Bucks County take place. Without a car, it would take me three hours using public transportation from Levittown to Doylestown, just to attend a meeting. Many are aware that much of the wealth is concentrated in “Upper Bucks,” where Doylestown is located. That means that our poorest population is furthest from and least able to voice their concerns in the seat of county politics.
For those with mobility-related conditions, the option to attend political events in person has never been available. This is especially unacceptable, since township meetings are where decisions about building-accessibility and local design are deliberated. These decisions are made without the input of those who will be most affected and know the most about accessibility.
Another benefit of virtual events is the ability to record proceedings. Few care to access and read meeting notes, but hundreds of people now watch Bucks County meetings. Community advocates can use these larger videos to make digestible clips of the most important information.
Bristol Township, the Bucks County Commissioners, and many others have easily built the infrastructure for virtual meetings, and when the pandemic ends, it will still be there. Still, the Prison Oversight Board, which manages Bucks Correctional operations and policy, hasn’t posted their monthly meeting link online. Lower Bucks for Change requested that the meetings be remotely accessible in the future, which the prison oversight board will discuss further in February. Even online, hearing impaired residents still aren’t able to participate, since most townships don’t have sign-interpreters. There’s still some ground to cover, but within a month, every political institution in Bucks County and beyond should be able to make their events virtually accessible.
Some is arguably lost by moving everything online. Officials can feel the pressure of a physical audience more deeply than a virtual one. Post-meeting conversations and organizing are hindered when the Zoom window closes. It would make sense to continue to allow both, and for organizers to find creative ways to connect with virtual attendees.
The democratic culture of Bucks County is pitiful, and keeping our politics virtual is unlikely to generate the participation that we need. There are many things we need to change, but physical accessibility is one of the easiest; we’ve already done it and we shouldn’t go back.