By Mokhumi Valela
The crucial 2018 harmonised elections are upon us as the nation of Zimbabwe. As different stakeholders prepare for this decisive process for our country, one wonders what its temperament will be. Questions that come to the fore are whether this plebiscite will match the principles of our supreme law of being peaceful, free and fair; conducted by secret ballot; based on universal adult suffrage and equality of votes; and free from violence and other electoral malpractices.
Some eligible voters are wondering if the State will indeed take all appropriate measures, including legislative procedures, to warrant that effect is given to the principles of ensuring that all eligible citizens are registered as voters. Various sections of society are posing the crucial question of whether those administering this process will effectively facilitate voting by persons with disabilities or special needs.
For the purposes of this article I shall use the definition of the Disabled Persons Act [Chapter 17:01] that states that a “disabled person” means a person with a physical, mental or sensory disability, including a visual, hearing or speech functional disability, which gives rise to physical, cultural or social barriers inhibiting him from participating at an equal level with other members of society in activities, undertakings or fields of employment that are open to other members of society. Chapter two, subsection twenty-two of our supreme law says the State and all institutions and agencies of government at every level must recognise the rights of persons with physical or mental disabilities, in particular their right to be treated with respect and dignity.
A subsection of the same chapter obliges the State to consider the specific requirements of persons with all forms of disability as one of the priorities in development plans. Article 29 of the United Nations Charter on the Rights of Persons with Disability (UNCRPD) which all modern democracies are ratifying clearly pronounces that States Parties shall guarantee to persons with disabilities political rights and the opportunity to enjoy them on an equal basis with others. In our Zimbabwean context, a question arises, how far do politicians want to engage persons with disability in policy crafting and implementation, beyond promises of houses, cars and mines?
The (UNCRPD) further goes on to put a responsibility on the State to ensure that persons with disabilities can effectively and fully participate in political and public life on an equal basis with others, directly or through freely chosen representatives. One would ask if at all there are any freely chosen representatives by persons with disability in Zimbabwe? If there are any masquerading as such, then a further legitimate question would be, what criteria was used in selecting the representatives?
The agreement among member states of the United Nations body entitles people with disabilities the right to vote and be elected. This can only be possible in a context where the government, through the electoral management body, ensures that voting procedures, facilities and materials are appropriate, accessible and easy to understand and use.
With three months before the decisive 2018 elections, it could be asked if at all the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Z.E.C.) has taken into account or will consider the accessibility to persons with disability of schools and other venues chosen as polling stations. In the same vein, there is curiosity on what steps politicians/political hopefuls are taking to ensure that persons with disability actually access polling stations. There is dire need to consider how the dignity of persons with disability, especially women wearing dresses is affected if they have to be lifted up the stairs; it is presumably uncomfortable for our mothers and sisters to be lifted by, or in front of men just to cast their votes.
What buttresses the concern raised immediately above is that for close to twenty years we have had the Disabled Persons Act [Chapter 17:01] lying in shelves without being implemented. The Act empowers a legally constituted board that considers any premises, services or amenities that are inaccessible to disabled persons by reason of any structural, physical, administrative or other impediment to such access, to serve upon the owner of the premises or the provider of the service or amenity concerned.
It seeks an adjustment order setting out a full description of the premises, service or amenity concerned, the grounds upon which the Disability Board considers that the premises, service or amenity is inaccessible to disabled persons. The panel has legal capacity to require the owner or provider concerned to undertake at his own expense such action as may be specified in order to secure reasonable access by disabled persons to the premises, service or amenity concerned; and stipulating the period within which the action shall be commenced and completed.
It is within the panel’s jurisdiction to specify the grounds upon which the adjustment order is to be issued and the nature of the action which the Board considers necessary to rectify the situation which has given rise to the proposed order, stipulating the maximum period that the Board considers reasonable for the implementation of the action it proposes to order. The Disabled Persons Act makes pronouncements on the prohibition of denial to disabled persons of access to public premises, services and amenities. Under this piece of legislation, the proprietor of a premises shall not have the right on the ground of a person’s disability alone to reserve right of admission to his premises against such a person. One would thus conclude that those operating from such inaccessible sites are practicing what would be termed ‘denial by default’. With what is prevailing, one tends to wonder if there is political will to implement these remedies in the country.
Our very own Zimbabwean constitution: Chapter 1: section 22 makes it mandatory for the government to encourage the use and development of forms of communication suitable for persons with physical or mental disabilities. The million-dollar questions; is there political will to have sign language interpreters and those able to read brail as polling officers and polling agents, are there ways of funding expenses incurred in making election material accessible to the blind and deaf?
The United Nations Charter on the Rights of Persons with Disability (UNCRPD) espouses guarantee of 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. Furthermore, the charter promotes 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 organisations and associations concerned with the public and political life of the country, and in the activities and administration of political parties.
Against such robust provisions, a number of questions come to mind; are there any disability structures within the parties/organisations; how robust and effective are they? How can we have explanations of disability policies by political parties? Have local civic organisations incorporated persons with disability in their structures?
The document goes on to encourage the forming and joining organisations of persons with disabilities to represent us at international, national, regional and local levels. Critics would ask; how conducive is the socio-economic and political environment for the formation of Disabled Persons’ Organisations?
A further provision in the convention is protecting the right of persons with disabilities to vote by secret ballot in elections and public referendums 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. Some would pose the questions; what quota is reserved for people with disability in government, and how are political parties ensuring persons with disability are afforded an opportunity to stand for political office beyond the forthcoming polls? Food for thought.