Not about us without usDec 4, 2017
“Have you voted before?” I ask Malcom Kpana.
“Well,” he chuckles with a hint of apprehension, “I can publicly say that I did participate in an election. But in my conscience, I cannot say whether my assistant followed my instructions and selected the candidate I wanted to vote for.”
Malcom is visually impaired. This means that he was permitted a helper to assist him when he cast his ballot in Sierra Leone’s last election. However, he points out, while voting is intended to be an act of individual thought and decision-making, he is not entirely sure that the ballot he cast did indeed reflect his preferred candidate.
“Only Heaven can tell me,” he says.
DEMOCRACY MEANS INCLUSION
As Election Day draws nearer in Sierra Leone, UNDP is working with the National Election Commission (NEC) and the National Commission for Persons Living with Disabilities (NCPD) to ensure that every eligible voter is able to exercise his or her right to cast their ballot – including those who may be challenged to walk, communicate, or even just to hold a pen.
More than 15 percent of the global population – roughly one out of every seven – lives with some form of disability; and the NEC is acutely aware of the importance of accommodating this demographic.
Participation is fundamental to the credibility of election results and to democracy, itself. In fact, says the NEC, it would be “difficult for a country to call itself a democracy without maintaining a participatory and inclusive political environment in its policy.”
From 6 October – 17 November, the NEC conducted 16 workshops in districts across the country, engaging people with disabilities to identify their greatest challenges in the electoral process – in particular as voters and potential candidates – and to determine ways to address them.
ACCESS TO ELECTIONS
Working in smaller groups to collate ideas and then returning to the plenary for wider discussion, participants identified barriers to the electoral process – including the specific issues they have faced in registration and voting, and the ways in which election information has been provided to them.
Some of the participants explain that they do not enjoy their right to privacy like others do. The blind, for example, must trust their helpers. They are not able to act independently.
Others have trouble getting to polling centres. Public transportation is not accessible to everyone.
“I went to vote,” says one young woman for whom walking is a challenge. “But they turned me away because I was wearing a party colour. I went back home and changed but they told me I was still wearing the wrong colour. I didn’t have the ability to walk back there a third time, so I gave up.”
“The NEC is not accessible,” says another participant. “It has no ramp - just stairs.”
Another participant objects to the criticism, “but it’s only two stairs!” And a group of ten retorts, “It’s still stairs!” before erupting into an amicable laughter. They understand that the majority – those who are not familiar with disability – are simply unaware of the challenges they face, on a daily basis.
The challenges discussed are not only physical. In fact, the majority of problems are social – relating to attitudes, relationships and acceptance by others. There are many misconceptions about disability and these can be as debilitating than the impairment, itself.
“People think that blindness is contagious,” says Malcom. “And they think that being disabled means you have to stay at home, be taken care of, receive charity.”
Suleiman Moriba agrees. People think of us, “You are nothing. You offer nothing to society.”
These types of attitudes also affect the way people with disabilities see themselves.
“We also discriminate against ourselves,” says one participant. “I will say to myself, ‘I am a blind man. How can I stand for election?’”
Self-doubt is even more acute among women. According to the workshop facilitator, Christiana O’Reilly, rural or uneducated women are less likely to speak their minds or draw attention to themselves:
“Society tells women not to speak and they see that other women are not speaking. So, there is a general perception that it is not right for women to speak. Speaking out invites criticism and mockery – not only of the woman, but also to her family. And of course, she doesn’t want to bring shame to her family.”
OPPORTUNITIES TO LEARN AND TO WORK
It is not merely a psychological phenomenon. These misconceptions are manifest in very real ways, severely limiting the scope of opportunities available to persons with disabilities. It is a global phenomenon, affecting both developed and non-developed countries.
According to the World Health Organization, descriptive data indicates that persons with disabilities are disadvantaged in educational attainment and labour market outcomes.
Even non-discriminatory institutional policies can inadvertently produce discriminatory results. As an example, the educational levels required to obtain employment often marginalize disabled persons because they are less likely to have attended school.
As another example, a participant with one arm explains that he was unsuccessful in obtaining one particular job because he is unable to type quickly enough. It was not a matter of exclusionary policy that prevented him from being hired, but rather a lack of inclusive policy.
The experiences described by women indicate that they are even less likely to be sent to school, less likely to secure financial loans.
“Girls are not valued to begin with,” says Susan Davis. “So if they’re born with a disability, their family is even less likely to invest in them.”
WHAT THE NEC CAN DO
In accord with the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and with Sierra Leone’s own Disability and Public Elections Acts, UNDP provides support to the NEC to hold elections that are not only technically sound and sustainable, but that are also inclusive – in particular, to women and to those living with disabilities.
According to Annetta Flanigan, a UNDP Advisor who provides technical support to the NEC, the fact that persons with disabilities are aware that they have rights is a step in the right direction. “But the workshops go far beyond awareness,” she says, explaining that the experiences and recommendations shared over the course of these few weeks will inform important changes that will take place in advance of elections in 2018.
According to the national Disability Act, “The NEC shall ensure that during elections, polling stations are made accessible to persons with disabilities and shall provide such persons with the necessary assistive devices and services to facilitate the exercise of their right to vote.” The NEC is therefore obligated to address challenges that impede persons with disabilities from participating in the electoral process.
Most the issues raised by workshop participants can and will be addressed. There will be tactile ballot guides and sign language will be used to communicate TV messages to the hard of hearing. Voter information will be presented with pictures and infographics to be more accessible to those who are illiterate. And, where possible, ramps will be provided or polling stations moved into open spaces, so that there will be no steps to navigate. Persons with disabilities will also be hired, to help the NEC to improve the experiences of others who are challenged.
And while the NEC cannot control what people think or feel, it plays an important role in “normalizing” disabilities. By considering the perspectives and experiences of the entire electorate – and not just the majority – the NEC will put into action the principles of equality and inclusivity. And that is the heart of democracy.
View the photo essay here.