Promoting Voting Rights for Persons with Disabilities

Friday, August 24, 2018
Promoting voting rights for persons with disabilities

In February 2018, Sri Lanka held local government elections to elect over 8,000 representatives responsible for key activities that directly impact the day-to-day lives of citizens from maintaining roads to ensuring funding for health services in their communities.  While Sri Lanka’s constitution guarantees the right to universal franchise, groups – such as persons with disabilities – often face barriers in accessing the electoral process. To address this issue, with support from USAID, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) worked with the Election Commission of Sri Lanka (EC) and civil society partners to conduct targeted voter education initiatives for voters with disabilities ahead of the local government elections.

As one of its first steps, IFES worked with eight Disabled Persons Organizations (DPOs) to establish a technical working group (TWG) on accessible elections that engages directly with the Election Commission on disability initiatives. Ahead of the election, the TWG formally requested that national observer groups include persons with disabilities in their election observation teams. Following this request, the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) engaged 22 observers with disabilities. Encouraged by this opportunity, ORHAN, an organization of people with disabilities in the Northern Province, carried out their own election observations and interviewed voters with disabilities throughout Vavuniya about their experiences with polling station accessibility.

IFES also partnered with the Sri Lanka Central Federation for the Deaf (SLCFD) to conduct a voter education session for 57 deaf voters. Members of the deaf community noted that they felt left out of the political decision-making process – especially as voters – due primarily to lack of accessible information, including voter information, which is often communicated through radio and television. One of the 57 deaf persons who participated in the IFES workshop said “during the election period, many politicians come to my house, and when they figure out that I cannot hear or speak...they don’t bother to take any effort to make me understand how I can vote. I am a Sri Lankan citizen and I have a right to meaningfully participate in elections.” The voter education session utilized simultaneous sign language interpretation and produced five voter education videos with sign language for wider distribution on social media sites.  The five videos were viewed more than 3,000 times on Facebook alone. “The information was very useful, especially because seven members in my family are deaf. I was able to show the videos to all of them. We learned that we can cast our vote even if the polling card is not sent to the house on time,” a viewer said.

In addition to these sessions, IFES distributed its polling station accessibility checklist to Senior Presiding Officers nationwide and collaborated with the EC to develop a disability sensitization video for poll workers. Throughout the programs, participants noted that as voters with disabilities, they had never had an opportunity to engage in voter education sessions before. They also expressed a commitment to sharing their new knowledge and skills with other local community members to empower them to vote: “I have a deaf friend who has lost her identity card. I can now tell her she can vote even without her identity card. I am determined to share my knowledge with other friends in the deaf community.” Such targeted interventions are critical to promoting more inclusive electoral participation.

Last updated: August 24, 2020

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