Democracy doesn’t discriminate against disabled

2011-05-07 13:08

Popular American president Thomas Jefferson once observed: “We in America do not have government by the majority. We have government by the majority who participate.”

Jefferson may well have foreseen that voting is a critically important component in building political power for everyone, including people with disabilities.

Participation in the electoral process has never been more important or more accessible and that’s good news not only for the disabled community but for our democracy as a whole.

Grassroots efforts, along with legislation, are making progress in breaking down those barriers.

As a result, we expect to see continuing increases in voter turnout in the disabled communities. People with disabilities are more aware than ever that voting is more than simply a responsibility.

The sad truth is that turnout among South Africans who are physically challenged is distressingly low.

The reasons people with disabilities don’t vote range from the physical barriers – basic access to the polling places is all too often limited or difficult – to a lack of information about voting rights for the disabled among both poll workers and citizens with disabilities themselves.

Ours is a society that tolerates too much indifference, too much prejudice, too much pity and not enough change.

What is the most common misconception about people with disabilities?

As a group, I think people with disabilities still face many of the same stereotypes that we have faced for hundreds of years: that they are sick, unintelligent and not capable of very much.

The truth is people with disabilities are eager to do everything anybody else does. They just want the same rights everyone else takes for granted.

It is a pity that even though voting is a fundamental civil right, there remains lack of access to polling places. Discrimination at the polling booth ended almost 17 years ago.

But for people with disabilities, the discrimination continues.

Let’s put it boldly: There is no other factor that has as much impact on the lives of individuals with developmental disabilities than the commitment and competence of the people who care for them.

The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) cares for every voter.

The electoral commission is aware that if there is one sacred institution in a democracy, it’s the voting booth.

Our whole system of government derives its legitimacy from the idea that every vote counts – and that the vote you put into the ballot box is the same one that comes out the other side.

Voting does more than help elect officeholders.

Through the act of voting, and through collaboration with disability advocacy groups, we can help get hundreds of the disabled to enfranchise themselves as active players in the world of ideas and in the arenas where policy decisions are made.

And that’s where the commission comes in.

The IEC is involved in collaborative pro­­­jects with advocacy groups to encourage and empower people with disabilities and their allies to vote on May 18.

The electoral commission has worked with DeafSA (Deaf Federation of South Africa) to involve the deaf and the South African National Council for the Blind and the National Council for Persons with Physical Disabilities to prepare and participate in elections.

The IEC consistently liaises, collaborates and interacts with various individuals and organisations in the disability sector, inter alia, with DEAFSA, the South African National Council for the Blind (SANCB), the National Council for Persons with Physical Disabilities, Disabled Persons South Africa (DPSA, and the then Office on the Persons with Disabilities located in the Presidency.

We, also, collaborate with sister organisation like the South African Human Rights Commission’s (SAHRC) co-ordinator on persons with disabilities, South African Local Government Association (SALGA) desk on persons with disabilities and with dedicated desks on disabilities at the University of South Africa (UNISA) and University of Cape Town (UCT).

The IEC has worked with disability-related advocacy organisations over the years to offer voters accessible information, sometimes with pictures and language that is understandable at reading levels.

For the 2011 local government elections, the IEC developed voter education material to be used by people with disabilities: for example, there is a voter education booklet in 11 languages; large-font booklet in eleven languages for partially sighted users; the same booklet is available in braille for blind voters who can read braille and an audio version on a CD for blind voters who are unable to read braille.

The IEC website has also been improved for use by blind voters.

These materials are checked for bias by disability advocacy groups.

At the polling station, if anyone needs help to vote, polling volunteers and IEC workers are trained to assist or the voter can have a family member or friend to assist.

Anyone that makes a mistake filling in their ballot paper can ask a polling official for a replacement ballot paper and start again.

In a democracy, every vote matters.

But clearly, people with disabilities need structural changes in the voting system so they can exercise their right to vote.

We all have to work together to make those changes happen and ensure that democracy works equally for everyone.

» Thoko Mpumlwana is deputy chairperson of the IEC

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