As society strives to empower every individual with equal rights and opportunities, the active participation of persons with disabilities (PWDs) in electoral processes remains a critical challenge. Despite progress in disability rights and awareness, there is a pressing need for comprehensive measures to ensure the inclusion of PWDs in the democratic exercise.
PWDs encompass a diverse range of individuals with physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental health impairments. Their unique needs often present barriers to exercising their right to vote freely and independently. Accessible polling stations, communication support, and tailored accommodations are prerequisites for their full participation. However, many countries still fall short of addressing these concerns.
Speaking in an interview with this reporter Senator Ishmael Zhou said that the reasons for poor participation in the electoral processes by persons with disabilities are varied, but chief among them is the way policies and electoral laws are crafted.
“The reasons for poor participation in the electoral processes by persons with disabilities are many but chief among them is the way policies and electoral laws are crafted, they are crafted without the inclusion of disability, and disability only comes as an afterthought,” said Senator Zhou.
Zhou further stated that poor participation of people with disabilities in the electoral process is also a result of issues that include high nomination court fees which resulted in people with disabilities shunning away the idea of contesting as candidates for the 2023 elections, below the expected standard polling stations and poor information dissemination to people with disabilities hence there is need for the electoral body and political parties to both strategize on measures that do not leave people with disabilities in the electoral processes.
Senator Zhou also said that the public’s negative attitude and stereotypes that stigmatize persons with disabilities are another reason for PWD shunning away the idea of participation in the electoral process, he further said that public perception of persons with disabilities is that they are objects of pity to the extent that even those who want to put themselves forward as candidates are mocked by the electorate.
Articles 12 and 29 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) interpret the rights of persons with disabilities to vote, to be elected, and to provide for their equal recognition before the law and for accessible voting facilities, procedures, and materials.
Furthermore, Senator Zhou also said that in order to improve the participation of people with disabilities there should be reforms in the electoral laws to have a disability-inclusive matrix when people want to participate from registration as a voter, voter education, and an environment that is friendly and accessible to persons with disabilities
“There should be reforms in the electoral laws to have a disability-inclusive matrix when people want to participate from registration as a voter, voter education, and an environment that is friendly and accessible to persons with disabilities,” said Senator Zhou.
Zhou also told this publication that besides the above loopholes, there is also a positive development at ZEC, a visually impaired commissioner joined ZEC last August and Senator Zhou has hopes that all the ZEC systems as an election institution will employ persons with disabilities in various capacities so as to reduce stigma and discrimination of citizens with disabilities in the electoral cycle.
Another obstacle is the inaccessibility of voting locations. PWDs frequently encounter physical barriers such as inadequate ramps, narrow doorways, or inaccessible voting booths. This results in undue hindrances that prevent them from reaching polling stations or casting their ballots confidentially. Improved infrastructure and inclusive design can help overcome these obstacles, ensuring equitable access for all citizens.
Michael Masunda the founder and President of Disability Youth Advocacy Network In Zimbabwe (DYANZ) said that the environment where polling stations are located is another issue that affects the participation of PWDs in the electoral processes, in most provinces and wards schools are used as polling stations where the infrastructure is built with designs that don’t include ramps and this makes it hard for persons with disabilities to access polling stations particularly those who use wheelchairs and crutches.
Masunda also said that Persons with disabilities should be empowered in order for them to exercise their full potential in all facets of the economic growth of our country, he further said that Societies should promote tolerance and mutual respect among persons with disabilities and those able-bodied counterparts Societies should be taught about disabilities and abilities so that they will reduce and eventually eradicate the negligence of persons with disabilities
Efforts to enhance PWD participation should extend beyond election days. Political campaigns have a crucial role in ensuring inclusivity by addressing disability-related issues and actively seeking the input of PWDs. Inclusivity training for campaign staff and candidates can promote respectful engagement with the disabled community and foster policy dialogue that addresses their specific needs.
To truly uplift the participation of PWDs in electoral processes, governments should strengthen legal frameworks and policies that safeguard their rights. Upholding the principles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) is crucial in ensuring non-discrimination, accessibility, and respect for the rights and dignity of PWDs throughout the electoral process.
The active engagement of PWDs within electoral commissions and advisory bodies can also yield valuable insights into improving inclusivity. By incorporating their lived experiences, recommendations, and perspectives, electoral bodies can develop comprehensive strategies that meet the needs of the disabled population more effectively.
Enabling the active participation of PWDs in electoral processes remains an ongoing dilemma that requires urgent attention. Addressing physical, communication, and informational barriers, along with promoting training, dialogue, and legal safeguards, will contribute to a more inclusive democracy. Embracing the principles of inclusivity is not only a matter of human rights but also a testament to society’s commitment to equality and democratic values.