Persons with disabilities and political participation: Zimbabwe versus the world

By Farai Chirimumimba

It’s not enough to put people in parliaments, political parties need to be inclusive, other processes accessible. Persons with disabilities (PWDs) face a whole range of legal and practical barriers in exercising their right to political participation.

In one of my article titled: “Inclusion of persons with disabilities in electoral process paramount”, l noted that PWDs should thrive to go beyond being merely voters but should be full participants taking roles such as political part agents, local or international observers, be part of media monitoring, voter registration drive through election bodies or campaign and most importantly being candidates for public office. This article is a comparison of inclusion of PWDs in political processes in Zimbabwe versus the world.

We would like to see Africa adopt awareness raising campaign on right to vote of all PWDs. Only a minority of countries allow people with disabilities to fully participate in elections including Zimbabwe although more need to be done. Only 12 European member states implement all accessibility standards for PWDs, most focus on physical disability ability to access the polling station. Guardianship means losing right to vote in several countries. In seven countries namely Austria, Finland, Italy, The Netherlands, United Kingdom, Spain and Sweden people with mental health problems or intellectual disabilities can vote and take part in government. In 16 other European countries persons with mental health cannot vote namely in Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Lithuania Latvia, Luxembourg, Malta, Poland, Portugal, Romania and Slovakia.

Indonesia recently passed a law that prohibited persons with intellectual psychosocial disability from participating in elections. Fundamentals of political participation and active engagement in public policy should be inclusive and getting more people with disabilities in political office will fundamentally change the way we do things. It is therefore impactful to have two members in cabinet with disabilities in Canada. This is where policy direction of government is debated and agreed which means that the two members of cabinet have a voice in the creation of policies and framework inclusive of PWDs needs in Zimbabwe are however, represented in the Senate chamber which has 80 members making it hard for one person to convince the rest on the need to take PWDs issues seriously. After all the Senate although one arm of the state it is not as influential as the executive in policy formulation as is happening in Canada.

To enable more PWDs to participate politically we should start educating children about PWDs when we teach self-advocates give them confidence to teach others. Important to accurate portray leaders PWDs. Fighting sigma and misconceptions over PWDs require engaging young people in a formal way so they can work in their communities.

In Morocco there is need to change law to reinforce participation of PWDs. First there is need to change the attitudes of political parties. In the last election, 55 percent of polling stations did not have adequate space voting booth, 51 polling stations contained ballot boxes too high. In addition 100 percent, poll stations had no assistant for PWDs and no Braile available. In 90 percent of polling centres there was accessible parking, 62 percent of the parking space was not accessible to PWDs. Election body should work to reducing prejudice and combating discrimination, exclusion in polling centres and fighting for rights of PWDs to be in constitution.

However, in Lebanon the National Council Disabilities formed committee on disability rights. Report calls for creating special voting stations and possibility of early voting and assistants to persons who blind. Some PWDs have run for political office and won. However, during the last election poll workers were not trained to support voters with disabilities. Most polling stations were not accessible. The voting took place in public schools not accessible to PWDs. A 2010 decree to all municipalities to make polls accessible to all was not implemented. However in 2000 Lebanon passed law on disability rights considered progressive for integration.

Egypt’s new electoral law does not allow use lists so will find way to guarantee PWDs in parliament. However there is a new committee in parliament for social solidarity, family and PWDs where eight PWDs represent their peers in parliament. The President is required by law to appoint an additional person with disability. Seven of these are women with disabilities representing multiple discriminations-women youth etcetera. Two articles in 2012 Constitution on representation of PWDs in parliament and local government made it mandatory for closed party lists to have representation of women, PWD, religious minority, youth and diaspora citizens.

In Jordan no documents show people are restricted from voting because of disability. Priority is given to persons with disabilities. In order to vote, you have to show a personal identity document and voter card. PWDs have the right to have someone of their choice accompany them as long as the assistant is over 18 years old in order to support you in the voting process .But people with intellectual/psychosocial disability cannot register as candidates. Voting or candidate restriction on persons with psychosocial or intellectual disability is common throughout region. The 2012 law says certain number of polling stations should be accessible in each district. Election law used to restrict people who could not write and were required to announce their preferred candidate in front of election committee.

The Kenya voters audit by KPMG revealed that there are 146,000 persons with disabilities in the voter register during the 2017 polls. Although the number maybe low, it shows that PWDs are will to take part in political life.

In Zimbabwe PWDs have the same rights as able bodied persons. The Constitution of Zimbabwe Amendment Number 20 provides further rights to PWDs on Sections 22 and 83 were the State is tasks to do everything possible to ensure the advancement of rights of PWDs. However, the State can only undertake activities within its means which is a loop hope which can be used to avoid taking PWDs issues seriously.

The International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) and other civil society organisation have been in the forefront to address some of these gaps that inhibit PWDs from political participation by for example supporting the Independent National Election Commission (INEC) of Nigeria to conduct a number of consultative forums on improving electoral access for persons with disabilities. The forums were held on December 15 and 19, 2014, in six geopolitical zones. Participants included members of the Joint National Association of Persons with Disabilities in Nigeria (JONAPWD) and disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) across the country.

An article titled, “Building Election Accessibility in Nigeria” by Election Access says “the forums identified a number of obstacles to the inclusion of voters with disabilities, and formulated key action points that will be used by INEC to inform future access and inclusion policies. These include the creation of an INEC Electoral Access working group, development of visual information about polling procedures to meet the needs of people who are deaf or hard of hearing, and the recruitment of persons with disabilities to INEC Desk Officer positions established to work on electoral access issues. The forums also explored the topic of persons with disabilities and electoral violence. Persons with disabilities are often subject to targeted violence, as well as being at a heightened risk of other election related violence. Forum participants called for increased efforts to provide adequate security at polling units.”

Zimbabwe Election Commission (ZEC) can learn from programmes being implemented by other countries for the full inclusion of PWDs in political life. There was talk of ZEC introducing a disability desk at it offices. Such programmes will bring ZEC closer to the problem PWDs face in their endeavors to participate in political life.