Participation in political and public life is a critical element of socially inclusive development, along with the realization of human rights. In the case of persons with disabilities, participation in political and public life enables one to take part and have a voice in decisions that affect oneself and one’s community and country. Such participation is an important means of overcoming exclusion and discrimination and dismantling other barriers frequently faced by persons with disabilities.
While the right to participate in politics and public life is well-established in human rights law, persons with disabilities are frequently denied their right to political participation in a variety of ways and for a variety of reasons, often the result of direct or indirect discrimination. For example, stereotypes regarding disability often lead to discrimination against persons with disabilities in decision-making processes generally and in the specific processes of voting, running for office, or participating in public outreach initiatives by political parties. Obstacles faced by persons with disabilities often include combined aspects of legal, physical and transportation and informational barriers, among others.
The role of governments in ensuring that persons with disabilities are able to participate in decision-making processes of all kinds is important and extends not only to election management bodies, but to all decision-making entities within government.
Despite the government’s efforts of leaving no one behind, Persons with disabilities continue facing a lot of barriers to Political Participation in Decision-making. These include:
- Attitudes to the value of inclusion of people with disabilities in decision-making processes
- Lack of accessible information on public meetings and consultations, political parties, voting, and registration
- Lack of transportation to public meetings, registration, and polling stations
- Physical barriers to public buildings, including courts, voting registration centers, and polling stations
- Polling stations in rooms too small to accommodate people using wheelchairs and voting boxes placed on high tables
- Lack of accessible information on voting procedures for voters with sensory disabilities
- Poorly-trained election workers
- Hostility and/or exclusion of people with psychosocial disability and intellectual disabilities in decision-making processes
- Lack of alternative voting devices or accessible voting methods for people with sensory disabilities
- Lack of mobile voting mechanisms for people who cannot leave their homes or who are currently residing in hospitals/institutions.
Participation and inclusion are general principles of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which also establishes, as a general obligation, that persons with disabilities are entitled to participate in decision-making processes on an equal basis with others where their interests are affected. Accessibility is a general principle of the CRPD, the requirements of which are set out in Article 9 as it relates to the right to participate in political and public life. This requires inter alia accessible and inclusive civil education, voter education materials, polling stations and transport.
Our domestic law (The Persons with Disabilities Act No. 6 of 2012) emphasizes this obligation in part 5, Division 6 – Political and Public Life. It highlights that,
- The Minister shall take measures to ensure that persons with disabilities effectively and fully participate in political and public life on an equal basis with others, directly or through freely chosen representatives, including the right and opportunity for persons with disabilities to vote and be elected, inter alia, by-
- Ensuring that voting procedures, facilities and materials are appropriate, accessible and easy to understand and use;
- Protecting the right of persons with disabilities to vote by secret ballot in elections and public referenda without intimidation, and to stand for elections, to effectively hold office and perform all public functions at all levels of government, facilitating the use of assistive and new technologies, where appropriate;
- Guaranteeing the free expression of the will of persons with disabilities as electors and to this end, where necessary, at their request, allowing assistance in voting by a person of their own choice; and
- Promoting actively an environment in which persons with disabilities can effectively and fully participate in the conduct of public affairs, without discrimination and on an equal basis with others and encourage their participation in public affairs, including:
- Participation in non-governmental organizations and associations concerned with public and political life of the country, and in the activities and administration of political parties; and
- Forming and joining organizations of persons with disabilities to represent persons with disabilities at international, national, regional and local levels.