Author: The Division for Social Policy and Development (DSPD)
Affiliated organization: United Nations
Type of publication: Toolkit
Participation in political and public life is a critical element of socially inclusive development, along with the realization of human rights. In the case of persons with disabilities, participation in political and public life enables one to take part and have a voice in decisions that affect oneself and one’s community and country. Such participation is an important means of overcoming exclusion and discrimination and dismantling other barriers frequently faced by persons with disabilities.
While the right to participate in politics and public life is well-established in human rights law, persons with disabilities are frequently denied their right to political participation in a variety of ways and for a variety of reasons, often the result of direct or indirect discrimination. For example, stereotypes regarding disability often lead to discrimination against persons with disabilities in decision-making processes generally and in the specific processes of voting, running for office, or participating in public outreach initiatives by political parties. Obstacles faced by persons with disabilities often include combined aspects of legal, physical and transportation and informational barriers, among others.
The right to participate in political and public life is a well-established principle of international human rights law. It was first set out in Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and further elaborated in Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which guarantees to all citizens the right and the opportunity, without unreasonable restrictions, to take part in the conduct of public affairs directly or through freely chosen representatives; to vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections; and to have equal access to public service.
The Convention specifies certain measures – although it does not limit State parties to these measures alone – to be taken to ensure that persons with disabilities can effectively and fully participate in political and public life on an equal basis with others, including the right and opportunity to vote and be elected. These include:
► ensuring that voting procedures, facilities and materials are appropriate, accessible and easy to understand and use;
► protecting the right of persons with disabilities to vote by secret ballot;
► protecting the right of persons with disabilities to stand for elections and to hold office and perform all public functions at all levels of government, including facilitating the use of supportive technologies where relevant; and
► ensuring equal and effective access to voting procedures and facilities in order to exercise their right to vote, including provision of reasonable accommodation.
While the right to participate in politics and public life is well-established in human rights law, persons with disabilities are frequently denied their right to political participation in a variety of ways and for a variety of reasons, often the result of direct or indirect discrimination
Article 29 further requires State parties to promote an environment in which persons with disabilities can effectively and fully participate, without discrimination, in the conduct of public affairs and to encourage their participation in public affairs, including:
► Participation in the conduct of public administration, including the administration of political parties and civil society;
► Participation in the work of international organizations, including serving as a representative of government in international organizations; and
► Formation of and participation in DPOs at international, national, regional and local levels.
Measures to ensure inclusive political processes
There are a variety of measures that governments, political parties, national human rights institutions, and disabled people’s organizations (DPOs) can undertake to give effect to the CRPD’s provisions on participation in political and public life. In the specific context of voting, government officials, in consultation and cooperation with persons with disabilities and DPOs, should:
- Revise electoral and relevant legal frameworks for disability inclusion; Article 29 of the CRPD provides that persons with disabilities are to be guaranteed political rights and also the opportunity to enjoy them. This means that, in addition to removing legal restrictions on the right of persons with disabilities to vote, State parties must take measures to ensure that persons with disabilities can make use of that right. Such measures should include:
- Develop accessible and inclusive voter education and information.
- Train election commission officials on accessible elections.
- Utilize election monitoring and observation to support inclusive elections.
- Develop accessible ballots.
- Ensure civil society participation.
- Ensure there are accessible electoral complaints systems.
Revise electoral and relevant legal frameworks for disability inclusion
A first step towards implementation of the right to participation in political and public life is the review of relevant legal and policy frameworks to ensure their coherence with the CRPD. This requires elimination of any restrictions on the rights of persons with disabilities to vote or to participate in other aspects of political and public life. Restrictive electoral or voting laws are a concern in all regions of the world, particularly in terms of their frequent application to persons with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities, who are often deprived legal capacity.
Develop inclusive voter education and information
Ensuring access for persons with disabilities to voter education and information requires accommodation and various modifications. For example, illustrative or pictorial information may be useful for a broad range of potential voters, including persons with intellectual disabilities and persons with hearing impairments. In preparing accessible information, other types of differences in communication and information needs should also be taken into account to accommodate the diversity of the electorate. Such variables can include language, literacy, urban versus rural populations, cultural traditions and gender, among others. Political parties can play an important role in ensuring inclusive political outreach and education. In many countries coalitions of political parties that represent the interests of different social groups have recognised that persons with disabilities are an important pool of potential votes for political parties. Many of these have adapted their messaging to include sign language and braille to accommodate persons with disabilities.
Civic, social and political education should portray persons with disabilities as part of the electorate and as politicians. Public awareness campaigns should highlight the political rights of persons with disabilities. Education campaigns or programmes should also target children so that they are exposed to positive images of persons with disabilities as engaged citizens. This will help engender positive views on the role that persons with disabilities can and should play in society. In addition to promoting civic education, ensuring inclusive education for children with disabilities will further support their development as engaged citizens, and potentially as voters or elected office holders.
Training election commission officials on accessible elections
Election officials and election management bodies (EMBs) have an important role to play in ensuring election access for persons with disabilities. In many cases, however, they may lack training and awareness on how to achieve inclusive elections. The following measures can support election officials and EMBs to carrying out their responsibilities in a manner consistent with the CRPD:
► development of standards and guidelines for the accessibility of registration and polling centres;
► ensuring that site selection of registration and polling centres takes into account all aspects of accessibility for persons with disabilities;
► providing training for election officials on accessibility issues facing persons with disabilities in the voting context;
Civic, social and political education should portray persons with disabilities as part of the electorate and as politicians
► providing election information and voting materials in accessible formats, such as braille and in easy to read and understand forms;
► allowing voters to be assisted by a person of their own choosing and, in addition, make available to voters guides and professional sign language interpreters to facilitate accessibility at polling centres; and
► utilizing accessible technology, such as accessible websites and electronic voting machines that are fully accessible to persons with disabilities.
Election monitoring and observation for inclusive elections
Election monitoring and observation can be undertaken by a variety of stakeholders. Observers may include domestic observers from local civil society organizations, representatives of political parties, journalists, oversight and regulatory agencies, and national human rights institutions (NHRIs). Additionally, international observers representing international governmental or non-governmental organizations may also take part in election monitoring and observation.
Developing accessible ballots
In order to guarantee the right to vote, governments must provide accessible ballots.12 In many African countries, efforts have been made to make paper ballots accessible through the development of tactile ballot guides. The tactile guides are made of paper and are produced at low cost. The guide allows a paper ballot to be placed into a folderlike guide with cut out windows that the voter uses to enable him or her to know where to place the required thumb print or mark. Tactile guides have been effectively used in Sierra Leone, Ghana, and Liberia and elsewhere to help secure the right to vote in secret and independently.13 In these instances, materials on the use of the guides were developed, poll workers were trained in their use, and outreach was undertaken to ensure that voters with visual impairments were aware of its availability.
Ensuring civil society participation
In order to promote a fully inclusive political process, it is essential for government officials to consult with civil society organizations, particularly DPOs. DPOs are perhaps best placed to serve as resources on accessibility with regard to electoral processes and public decision-making more generally.
DPOs should be regarded as expert resource organizations for:
► training of election officials;
► designing accessible voting procedures;
► conducting voter education on issues of election access;
► developing election monitoring tools that are inclusive of disability issues; and
► designing accessible websites and election materials.
Ensuring accessible electoral complaints systems
Full enjoyment by persons with disabilities of the right to participate in political and public life requires accessibility to electoral complaint mechanisms. In instances where persons with disabilities feel they have experienced discrimination on the basis of disability in the electoral context, they must be able to file a complaint with such a body or mechanism. In particular, individuals with disabilities must be able to challenge restrictions and limitations on political and electoral rights, including in relation to seeking political office, supporting political parties and candidates, and registration and voting itself.
In Uganda, for example, the Constitution requires that a certain percentage of seats in Parliament be accorded to representatives with disabilities
The right to stand for elected office and participate in public service
Persons with disabilities have the right to stand for election for and to serve in public office. States may limit the participation of individuals in these processes on the basis, for example, of not having reached the minimum age. Such restrictions must be justifiable and reasonable. Disability cannot count as a restrictive condition.
Persons with disabilities must also enjoy equal access to public service opportunities and government jobs at all levels, including working at local government offices as well as serving as government representatives at international levels such as in the United Nations. Numerous elected representatives with disabilities as well as governmental public servants participated in the UN negotiations that resulted in the adoption of the CRPD, including from across the African Continent. Such inclusion helps ensure that government at all levels takes into account the needs of persons with disabilities.
In some countries DPOs have advocated positive measures to ensure that their interests are effectively represented in their legislatures. In Uganda, for example, the Constitution requires that a certain percentage of seats in Parliament be accorded to representatives with disabilities. In other countries the executive may set aside a certain number of parliamentary seats. In Namibia, for example, this policy has resulted in the presidential appointment of representatives with disabilities to parliament. In other cases persons with disabilities may have representation through a commissioner in the national human rights commission, as in the case of South Africa.
The Right to Form and Join Organisations
Disabled Persons Organizations have an important role in representing the views of persons with disabilities and can serve as a mechanism enabling persons with disabilities to make a contribution to political life and public service through their involvement in the DPO. The CRPD recognizes the right of persons with disabilities to form and join DPOs for the purpose of representation at all levels. This reflects the human right of anyone to found an association with others around a particular issue or to join an existing association. Forming an association and joining as a member must be voluntary: no one can be forced to join any association. States must provide a legal framework for establishing associations and must protect the right to do so.
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