Thursday, 6 May, 2021
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OPINION

Ensure Voting Rights Of Persons With Disabilities



Dev Datta Joshi

In developing nations like Nepal, persons with disabilities, especially persons with intellectual disabilities and psychosocial disabilities, are often subjected to inhuman treatment and are perceived as persons requiring charity, and with seemingly no rights. Also, in many parts of the world, intellectual disability and psychosocial disability is still attributed to past wrongdoing by parents or even by persons with disabilities themselves. In these parts, persons with intellectual disabilities are barred from religious and cultural events like wedding ceremonies and other formal occasions, as their presence is thought to bring bad luck.

Choice of citzens
In addition, policy makers even in developed nations don’t know the existence of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), an international human rights treaty of the United Nations intended to protect the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities. Disability and civil rights law expert Michael Waterstone says that right to vote is the choice of every citizen to choose whoever they want to represent their interests at all levels of government. Voting is fundamentally a way an individual declares his/her place in society. Right to vote is very important for persons with disabilities because their interests are usually not represented sufficiently at the governmental level.
More importantly, for persons with disabilities, access to inclusive elections is important as it demonstrates to the public that they are equal citizens who make valuable contributions to the society. As a result, persons with disabilities can have a stronger political voice. Persons with disabilities usually face numerous barriers to their full political participation. These barriers can include communication, attitudinal, environmental and institutional barriers. For deaf or deafblind people, communication is main barrier that significantly limits access to information on inclusive elections. Printed materials are not accessible to persons who are blind.
For wheelchair users, physical barriers may limit access to buildings and in some cases, access to buildings where voting is taking place thereby depriving them of their right to cast votes for their preferred candidates. Furthermore, attitudinal barriers which include stereotypes and stigma of persons with disabilities limit access to public life and may affect the confidence of those intending to stand for public office. In some superstitious communities, persons with psychosocial disabilities are possessed by evil spirits or victims of witchcraft due to their evil actions. As a result, families of such persons may not register them as citizens or may limit their participation in social, economic and political processes, thereby depriving them of voting rights.
The unique challenges that intellectually disabled people face while exercising the voting rights include the stereotypes about their capabilities and cultural beliefs about the causes of mental disability; lack of accessible materials on how to vote, and laws and policies that are not inclusive of persons with disabilities. Nepal’s election laws do not address persons with disabilities. The election laws refer persons with intellectual disabilities and psychosocial disabilities as of unsound mind, restricting their right to vote as enshrined in the international human rights instruments.
During 2017 provincial and federal elections of Nepal, independent disability rights activists found that votes of disabled people, especially those having intellectual and psychosocial disability and visual impairment, were misused. The government should ensure that persons with disabilities can vote privately and independently but with the support they may require. The government should do this by conducting intensive policy level workshops with election authorities to enforce voter accessibility laws and campaigning policy information on disabled people. The government should break down the barrier facing persons with disabilities in an innovative way and push existing boundaries to inspire them to achieve new heights.
The UN CRPD upholds the equal political rights of persons with disabilities, including those with intellectual disabilities and psychosocial disabilities. Articles 29 and 12 are particularly relevant for election- related activities. CRPD’s Article 29 states that voting procedures, facilities and materials must be appropriate, accessible and easy to understand for use of persons with disabilities. Article 12 of the CRPD focuses on legal capacity, an issue that often affects the right to vote of persons with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities. Article 12 requires governments to ensure persons with disabilities the right to equal recognition before the law. The UN Sustainable Development Goals 10 (SDGs 10) states that all national laws and policies should be disability inclusive to eliminate discrimination and should provide reasonable accommodation.

Significant shift
The Constitution of Nepal 2015 marks a significant shift from welfare to human rights-based approach in the context of vulnerable and special interest groups, including persons with disabilities. Practically speaking, the scope of the new constitution as it relates to voting rights is more liberalised and improved compared to its predecessor, the 1990 constitution. However, its implementation is slow. Section 11 of Nepal’s Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2017 states that persons with disability, on an equal basis as of another person, shall have the right to be a candidate in elections in a fearless environment, and have right to cast vote voluntarily with or without someone’s support.
In conclusion, inaccessible voter laws and stereotypes about capabilities of persons with disabilities are the key barriers that block them from exercising their voting rights. As a State party to the CRPD, Nepal government should take practical measures to address all the barriers that the disabled people face at different stages of the election cycle -- pre-election period, election period and post-election period.

(Joshi is the executive director of Equip for Equality Nepal. dev@een.org.np)