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Making their votes count

6 September 2015 06:35 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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“Mine was not a secret vote. And to this date at the age of forty two, I still depend on another person to cast my vote which is supposed to be a private choice,” a voter from Galle said.
“My eye sight started to deteriorate due to an onset of glaucoma at an early age. While my peers were able to easily access the polling stations and cast their secret vote without a barrier, I was compelled to depend on another person to first guide me to the polling booth and then to mark the ballot paper with my choice of party and candidate,” the voter said. 
There could be an estimated 1.7 million persons with disabilities in Sri Lanka according to the Department of Census and Statistics (2012). 
This number is a significant proportion of the country’s total population of 21 million. This is not an op-ed reiterating the fact that Sri Lanka is the only South Asian country which has not ratified the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). Nor will this deliberate about why the Disability Rights Bill has not received a Cabinet approval to date. The UNCRPD and the Disability Rights Bill are choices in the hands of policy makers sitting in the legislative echelon of our country. 


This is a discussion about the access and space for persons with disabilities to determine who enters the legislature and therein approve and adopt policies which will ensure opportunities, choices and self-determination for persons with disabilities. 
There are many philosophers and opinion makers ranging from the great Mahatma Gandhi to Pope John Paul II who had stated that a society would be judged by the way her ‘weakest’ members are treated. 
However, it is society itself which makes its members weak by the systems, structures and attitudes promoted within. 
Persons with disabilities are not weak but rendered dependent and vulnerable by society.
“I consider myself equal and one with citizens of the country. However, each time an election is announced I am required to go through a tedious process of having to obtain a medical certification and then approach the Grama Niladhari to apply for a request for accessibility to the polling station or the specifications of a care-giver accompanying me to the polling booth. 
 


"I consider myself equal and one with citizens of the country. However, each time an election is announced I am required to go through a tedious process of having to obtain a medical certification"




In a world advancing in technology and development Sri Lanka continues to set up polling stations inaccessible to persons like me, making me dependent on someone else,” a voter from Dickwella said.
Article 1 of the UNCRPD defines persons with disabilities as ‘those who have long term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others’. 
Persons with disabilities face multiple challenges when participating in social, economic, cultural, and political spheres. Enabled Elections is an advocacy campaign spearheaded by a group of volunteering civil society organizations and individuals who aimed at reducing barriers to political participation by facilitating1) voter awareness among persons with disabilities and lobbied for 2) accessibility at polling stations in lieu of the General Elections on 17th August 2015. 
The Enabled Elections campaign was inspired by the circular PEI/64(2015) issued by the Elections Commissioner to all Assistant Commissioners to take action on assessing the numbers of voters who are with a disability to be presented with reasonable access to exercise their vote. The advocacy campaign’s success is largely attributed to a partnership with a mainstream elections monitoring organization namely the Centre for Monitoring Elections Violence (CMEV). 




The latter organization holds years of experience in elections monitoring, voter education and an established outreach network through which the Enabled Elections campaign was successful in achieving significant milestones within a period of a month leading up to the General Elections. 
Highlights of the campaign were the handover of a Manifesto requesting for disability inclusive policies and development goals from the succeeding Government, and the ratification of the UNCRPD, and implementation of the National Action Plan for Disability. The Manifesto was presented to President Maithripala Sirisena, the Speaker Karu Jayasuriya and the leader of the Janatha Vimukthi Party (JVP) Anura Kumara Dissanayake. 
The campaign also set an example in facilitating voter education material in accessible formats and in the vernacular to ensure that all persons with disabilities in the country eligible to vote practiced their Right on elections day. 
“I am the Chairperson of our Blind Association. When we participate in education programs we only have the choice to listen in. Even though information material is distributed we cannot make use of them because they are never in accessible formats such as Braille. Today has been an exception. The voter education material in Braille is a tremendous resource for me and my colleagues. Never have we been given this level of awareness about the importance of our vote and how to cast it accurately. We understand our value as citizens and the power we hold to select the policy makers who decide on our future, a voter from Kandy said.

 

"However, it is society itself which makes its members weak by the systems, structures and attitudes promoted within"




The Enabled Elections Campaign is a non-partisan effort and inclusive and aimed at mobilizing the general public to take the message to their peers, colleagues and family members who are with a disability and experience barriers when exercising their vote.  
The mobilization was a multi-pronged awareness campaign using social media, radio jingles, newspaper articles and electronic media discussions. The role and recognition established by CMEV was the fuel that sparked this momentous journey for the Enabled Elections campaign. For the very first time, the CMEV introduced an additional dimension to be monitored by their field based staff on the day of elections –
1) Is the polling station accessible? 
2) What provisions were organized by the Senior Presiding Officer for persons with disabilities who could not access the ballot box? 
CMEV also invited other monitoring bodies to adopt the same measures in their monitoring efforts. One of the organisations namely, PAFEREL acknowledged the request and included a disability dimension into their monitoring efforts. This inquiry was also taken up by the international observers sponsored by CMEV and stationed strategically in polling divisions of the country. 
The island wide observations and monitors reports would present a realistic overview of the level of accessibility at polling stations. Added to this would be the testimonies of persons with disabilities who mobilized on the day of elections to report back to Enabled Elections about their experience. 
Therefore the Enabled Elections campaign does not end with the 17th August General Elections but will begin advocating for an inclusive electoral process. The direct experiences of persons with disabilities and the reports of the elections observers will inform the campaign’s next strategic direction.
The Enabled Elections team will continue to collaborate on the next level of action with like disability Rights activists, civil society organizations, and the office of the Elections Commissioner to create an inclusive electoral process so that persons with disabilities could exercise their voice.  
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