Promoting Access to Elections for Persons with Disabilities

Updated: January 2016

Charlotte McClain-Nhlapo, Coordinator in the Office of Disability and Inclusive Development at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and Judith Heumann, Special Advisor for International Disability Rights at the U.S. State Department, share their thoughts on the importance of persons with disabilities participating in the electoral process. This video was produced for a Regional Dialogue held by the General Election Network for Disability Access (AGENDA), entitled "Enhancing the Role and Participation of Persons with Disabilities - Promoting Election Access to All" and held in February 2012 in Jakarta.




Charlotte McClain-Nhlapo: Good morning. My name is Charlotte McClain-Nhlapo. I'm the Coordinator for Disability Development at USAID. It gives me great pleasue to be able to make a few remarks this morning at the Regional Dialogue on Access to Elections for Persons with Disabilities. This is indeed a very important issue, and before we go into why this is an important issue, I'd like to hand over to my colleague Judy Heumann.

Judy Heumann: Hello. My name is Judy Heumann. I'm the Special Advistor for International Disability Rights at the U.S. Department of State. Charlotte and I are very excited to be able to be participating with you today. I'm sorry we couldn't be there with you in person, but wanted to join together to be able to have a small discussion about why we consider the issue of participation of disabled people in the political process is so very important. I'd like to start out by saying that, you know, I'm 64 years old. I'm from the United States. I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and when I first went to vote, it was a very big experience for me as a young adult to be able to participate in the electoral process. I was not able to get into the electoral place by myself. My father had to carry my up a number of steps. That was quite embarrassing and, in addition to that, it was not possible for me to independently actually vote, because the ballot was too high, so I had to share my vote with my father. That's one of the very important issues, I think, when we talk about participation in the electoral process: our ability to be able to be independent, to come and go, and to be able to exercise our right to vote in secret, and if one is blind, the ability to exercise your right to vote in secret, meaning that you can choose someone to come in and support you in voting, if it's a manual electoral ballot process, and to be able to ensure that as disabled people we are able to show ourselves and our communities that we are vital members of our communities and wish to participate, as I know you are during this conference, to look at those collaborating with government and civil societies to remove barriers which have prevented you from appropriately participating. 

Charlotte McClain Nhlapo: And I just wanted to add on to what Judy said, because she mentioned the fact that she has personal experience in terms of voting but unfortunately this continues to happen in the world today. A lot of persons with disabilities continue to be excluded and discriminated against in terms of voting, and therefore we're really excited to see the coming together of ASEAN countries to begin to think about how to bring down those barriers. Article 29 of the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities specifically speaks to the importance of including persons with disabilities in the election process. And I think it's important to recognize that we should not just focus on the physical aspect of voting, but that we need to understand it as part of a larger democratic process. So, how do we ensure that persons with disabilities are a) voting, but b) part of the process, that persons with disabilities are themselves on the ballot papers, that persons with disabilities are engaged in political parties, and they too can be part of influencing society and shaping society, so that hopefully societies can become more inclusive.

Judy Heumann: I think that's very important and I hope that over the course of the day that you're gonna be there this week, one of the things that can happen is that people can also be talking about both what the positive and negative experiences have been when you or colleagues have tried to vote. I think it's important for human rights organizations and government, because it depends to really more clearly understand those barriers to that people can really get behind effective implementation of the laws which are being developed. Implemetation is obviously a very important part of helping to ensure that good laws in fact become a reality, and for many people are now talking specifically about disabled individuals. In your country, if people have not been able to participate, people may be fearful about coming forth, and therefore I think looking at activities which really help raise awareness - not just of the non-disabled community but of disabled people themselves - to be able to see that they are a part of the electoral process within your country, and that the ability to join political parties, to be able to express their views within political parties, to be able to look at running for office is very important.

Charlotte McClain-Nhalpo: And all of that takes work and takes resources, and so I think it's important as you think through this issue over the next couple of days, is to think a bit about what kind of resources are needed to ensure that people with disabilities are in fact included. Obviously you'll have the necessary resources like making sure that polling stations are accessible, but very importantly it's going to be essential that you look at building and training capacity for both people who are involved in the electoral process, but also building capacity amongsts persons with disabilities themselves. So building capacity is a very important issue, so training of all stakeholders requires resources and I think would be something that you need to think about over the next couple of days. The issue of registration of persons with disabilities is also an important issue, and again, I would urge you think about this as you deliberate this issue over the next couple of days. And then I think finally we need to accept the fact that the electoral process do require resources, and that the inclusion of persons with disabilities is just part of that process. I mean, we shouldn't see it as an additional set of resources but we need to see it as part of the resources that are allocated for voting in any one country that we're working.                            

Judy Heumann: I think that's a very important point - a series of points, actually - that were raised. Resources are something that are given to ensure that elections can be held and that the citizenry can participate, and disabled people have been excluded from that, which in many ways has meant that sites are being selected that are not accessible, which exclude certain people from being able to come and vote, or there haven't been positive messages put forward encouraging people to register to vote and to participate in the elections. Now this also happens frequently for other groups within countries. Women may not have been encouraged in the past to participate in elections, and therefore you'll see awareness campaigns and the involvement of the women's community to really help ensure that people will participate, for that is - as we saw - an issue. As Charlotte is saying, it doesn't mean that they're additional fiscal resources that are needed in order to help advance this issue. What's critically important is that disabled people are seen as a part of the whole and that the government and civil society reocognizes that the need to be able to have as many people who wish to be participating in elections actually be able to vote is what you are really striving for. I'd like to share a couple of examples of activities that I've been involved with over the years. I started working with a non-profit organization in California called the Center for Independent Living. We put great emphasis on the issue of elections, and we did that in a number of ways. We had voter registration materials within the organization so that people came to the center, they would see the voter registration information and we were able to help people if they needed help to actually be able to fill out the forms. We let them have a table in front of the Center to encourage people that might not even be participating within our organization to register to vote, and what was very important about that was that the people that were running for office in our city really began to see that the voices of disabled people were very important because we really actively engaged. During the day of the election, we volunteered to different political parties, we worked with the various political candidates on how disability could be applied to the agendas for those people that were running for office. Active participation not only increases the number of disabled people that are voting, but it also allows those people who are running for office to take more seriously the agendas that you're trying to put forward.

Charlotte McClain-Nhlapo: And I think for me the issue around voting is really one of those fundamental rights. I mean, I think for persons with disabilities to be able to vote, to be part of that process, really links us to society and to the broader citizenry of the country in which we live. So it's a very serious issue, it's a very important issue, and there's a responsibility on the side of those that develop and monitor on the voting process, but there is also a responsibility on the side of persons with disabilities to be informed and to be engaged in the process of voting.

Judy Heumann: And you know, this a gradual process in all countries, getting people to recognize that the vote can make a difference in your country if in fact you are able to meaningfully participate. When I look back over the last couple of decades here in the U.S., I think that there are very dramatic changes that have occurred. Certainly in the 1960s when I started to vote, there was really no attention being paid to the inclusion of disabled voters, but we really have seen a dramatic change over the last 20 years, with the major political parties now in fact let people on their staff who are working to include disabled people in the electoral process, and as a result of that, we are also seeing that disabled people are being appointed to positions, like Charlotte and myself have been appointed to positions by the Obama administration to be able to help ensure that the president's commitment to inclusion and disabled people in our international agenda will in fact become a reality.

Charlotte McClain-Nhlapo: And I think finally to just say that we should not forget that people with disabilities make up 15% of any given population, and so it seems for me that for political parties it would be really sensible for them to make sure that they're reaching out to persons with disabilities, but reaching out and ensuring that persons with disabilities are involved in an intimate way and sincerely involved in the process of voting. And I think we both would like to wish you well and hope that you have great deliberation over the next three days, and we certainly look forward to seeing the results at this very interesting and timely conference.    

Judy Heumann: I think also I wanna thank IFES leadership role they've been playing for many years now in inclusion of disabled people in electoral processes in many countries around the world, and if we look to the future, over the next 5 to 10 years, as the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities becomes more seriously implemented in countries, the work that you're doing now and in the future will play a very important role and helping to demonstrate the fact that disabled people want to be active, contributory members of our society. They wanna be actively involved in the political process, they wanna be actively involved in removing the barriers that have precluded us from, and we want to be able to work effectively with governments, that government does have a responsibility to ensure that laws are effectively implemented, and I do hope that one of the outcomes of the sessions this week will be to look at that issue. I'd also like to say that consideration should be given to possibly having a discussion with the U.S. Department of Justice, which has responsibility for implementing our Help America Vote Act, to be able to share information on the experiences the we gained in the United States on helping to remove the barriers to enable people with all types of disabilities to actively participate in the electoral process. Have a great time, and we're so sorry we're not able to be there in person. Thank you.                                                               

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