It should be self-evident that election access for voters with disabilities cannot be reduced to the installation of a ramp or the addition of a Braille ballot. Nor can effective participation in the political life of one’s country be reduced to election-day ballot casting. Persons with disabilities must be accommodated in all facets of political and public life. This requires attention to the entire election cycle and the multiple elements within that cycle that hinder or enhance accessibility.
Assessing gaps between international legal standards, and domestic law and practice is critical and affects developed and developing democracies alike. Across the world, constitutions mandate universal suffrage and some prohibit disability discrimination. And yet, in countless countries, electoral codes exclude certain categories of persons with disabilities from voting or holding office. Or, they institute unorthodox procedures at the ballot box. Here are just three recent—and bizarre—examples:
- In the United States during the 2000 elections, voters with disabilities who required an accessible voting machine were able to position their wheelchairs comfortably under the machine and easily reach it. The problem? The ballot provided in the machine in one polling location was a sample—proffering George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as candidates.
- In Armenia during 2007 elections, the head of a leading non-governmental election observer group welcomed the proposal to include observers with disabilities on observer teams. The problem? He advised that they could participate in morning observation only, suggesting they would be too tired to work into the evening.
- In Jordan, voters with disabilities requiring assistance of any kind had to declare their need for assistance at the polling center. The problem? In order to receive any kind of assistance, they had to declare themselves illiterate and sign a declaration to that effect prior to receiving disability accommodations. And then, they could “whisper” their candidate choice into the ear of an election official who would mark their ballot.
In each of these examples, disability rights organizations engaged in legal advocacy to effect changes in law, policy and practice. U.S. Government support played an important role in these efforts, as did, of course, the expertise of persons with disabilities.
The legal landscape is complex, and the expertise of disability rights organizations to engage in law and policy advocacy in the sphere of electoral law, policy and procedure is limited. To address this knowledge gap, USAID is supporting development of a new module, entitled “Elections and Disability Rights” designed to train election stakeholders. This program—“Building Resources in Democracy, Governance and Elections” (BRIDGE)—is a global curriculum developed by the Australian Electoral Commission, International IDEA, International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Electoral Assistance Division.
Earlier this fall in Cairo a customized pilot of the module was tested in a three-day workshopsponsored by USAID and implemented by IFES Egypt, Helwan University and NAS, a disabled people’s organization in Cairo. IFES Egypt organized this workshop as the culminating activity of its development of the new generic BRIDGE module “Elections and Disability Rights.”
Practices from around the world show that it is possible to break down barriers and include persons with disabilities in all stages of the electoral cycle. Beyond voting, persons with disabilities can be positioned as voter educators, election commissioners, poll workers, observers, monitors and candidates. The USAID-funded Equal Access: How to Include Persons with Disabilities in Elections and Political Processes manual aims to provide local and national governments, international organizations, civil society groups, development professionals and donors with the tools and knowledge to strengthen the political participation of persons with disabilities in elections and political process programs so they have a greater voice in decisions that impact their welfare and communities.