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‘Enabling elections’ for disabled persons

Sep 20, 2011 3:34:01 PM - www.ft.lk

We warmly appreciate the continuing endeavours of Commissioner of Elections Mahinda Deshapriya and his dedicated staff to ensure that elections are completed in a free and fair manner, enabling facilities for all persons to cast their votes.

With the emergence of the social model of disability, world views and perceptions on what it means to be ‘disabled’ have changed – rapidly and for the better – to enhance the quality of life of all people.
It recognised that every one of us, irrespective of our positions and possessions, is only ‘temporarily able-bodied’ and only to varying degrees – and that too keeps on changing.
Open your eyes
Every country is made up of people with limitations in ability, physically, sensorily and intellectually, to varying degrees. Every one of us, for different reasons, is certain to spend some of our time living with abilities restricted in getting around (moving and seeing), physical coordination, manual dexterity and ability to concentrate, learn or understand.
The way a country treats this ‘disabled’ population or rather, its ‘ability restricted’ people and the true extent to which they are respected as fully-fledged citizens is a realistic and internationally recognised measure of a country’s good governance and a far more telling indicator of society’s development than GDP.
We also have more pregnant mothers, those convalescing and living with debilitating medical conditions (that often go unnoticed), elders carrying small children or heavy luggage, who are also thus physically restricted (and often visually impaired) in their movement.
A costly miss by politicians
Sri Lanka has the fastest ageing population in our region with almost 17% of the population soon being over 65.
An estimated 20% of Sri Lanka’s voting population i.e. four million, have diverse ability unable to move freely and are often forced silently to fight an uphill battle for safety, access and accommodation – even at public buildings and facilities.
These facts were accepted and recognised by the Supreme Court when orders were issued on 28 April 2011 under SC (FR) 221/2009, making compliance mandatory with design standards and laws in constructing all parts of new public buildings and facilities.
However, no politician seeking power has pledged to enable and uplift the quality of life of such a huge voting base in promoting the implementation of this law of such national importance.
An inherent right
Every person who qualifies to be an elector and be in the register of electors, irrespective of the degree of his/her mobility and vision, is eligible to vote as at the elections.
However, I am personally aware of many people who very much had the desire to go and cast their valuable vote but have been reluctantly compelled to refrain from exercising this right due to potential safety hazards and/or physical barriers either in approaching their polling stations and/or accessing their polling booths.
Although at most places the staff on election duty are quite helpful with understanding, in many districts, casting their vote could become the crucial deciding factor.
Enabling the disabled
This article has been written with utmost good faith, to create the awareness amongst decision makers of this prevalent physical problem faced at previous elections by an ever-increasing sector of our population that perhaps had also contributed a drop in the percentage who actually voted.
Furthermore, this writer had earlier taken the initiative in compiling a simple checklist as a guideline and forwarded it to the people concerned with the sincere belief that it would help them promptly to identify in advance, through a very simple self-audit, potential physical barriers to access at polling stations and thereafter how easily to eliminate most of them, in the larger interest of a ‘free and fair enabling election’ for the disabled people.
We have just been informed by the Commissioner of Elections that district election offices and returning officers have already been sensitised about the needs of voters impaired physically and sensorily. This we appreciate very much and believe it is a step closer towards a more meaningful social inclusion equally for all.
However, it is essential to create wide awareness about the facilities and procedures in place to encourage physically-disadvantaged voters to cast their votes freely and fairly without discrimination.
A communiqué from the Elections Commissioner in print and electronic media is the best way to achieve this.
(The writer is Hony. Secretary-General of ‘Idiriya,’ a voluntary disability rights activist and a well-known advisor on accessibility.)

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