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How will people with disabilities vote?

Cilla Khatry

Cilla Khatry

How will people with disabilities vote?

The Election Commission seems to have a ‘something is better than nothing’ approach to inclusiveness. It’s preparations are too little, too late

The federal and provincial elections are just days away. Preparations are in full swing. The excitement is palpable, with election-related discussions at every home and tea shop. But for people with disabilities, it’s a tricky situation. Without disabled-friendly infrastructure and facilities, they will have to face many hurdles to cast their votes. Some have chosen not to vote, fearing the humiliation they will have to face at the polling  when they can’t fill out the ballot papers or reach the ballot box.

The inability to exercise a fundamental right, as guaranteed by the Constitution of Nepal 2015, is infuriating, says Gajendra Budathoki, journalist and editor of Taksar News. Budathoki is wheelchair-bound and has been, over the years, raising his voice to make elections more disabled-friendly. He laments nothing has been done to make the elections inclusive and accessible to all. “The government and the Election Commission could do more if they wanted to. But they don’t. This is nothing new,” he says.

Budathoki recalls the 2017 local elections when supporters of a certain party took him to the polling station, almost a kilometer away from his home in Kapan, but they were nowhere to be found once he had voted. The road wasn’t in a good condition and it was quite steep too. Budathoki had a difficult time getting himself home. This time around as well, various parties’ cadres have approached him, promising to facilitate the voting process but he is wary. He will have to figure out how to work around the issues or simply stay at home.

Article 42 of the constitution states that people with disabilities shall have the right to participate in state matters on the basis of the principle of inclusion. The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2017 states those with disabilities have the right to be candidates as well as cast votes fearlessly and voluntarily, with or without help. Despite these protections in place, people with disabilities are marginalized and hence not granted the equal rights they have been promised.

“It’s appalling that the Election Commission takes so much money to prepare for the elections but cites lack of budget where disabled-friendly facilities are concerned,” says Budathoki. Ultimately, the government and the political parties are at fault, he adds. They are blatantly disregarding the law by not including the disabled population in state affairs. Budathoki feels the government doesn’t include issues of people with disability in its discussions with the commission, which in turn gets an excuse not to act.

The Election Commission, however, maintains they have done a lot to make the elections as inclusive and disabled-friendly as possible. Shaligram Sharma Poudel, spokesperson for the commission, says the local authorities have been instructed to look into this and to facilitate the process, including making ramps, rope-markings, as well as running awareness programs for volunteers on how to handle people with disabilities.

“We will give vehicle passes to people with disabilities so that they can get to the voting station easily. They can also bring someone to help them,” says Poudel. But people with disabilities aren’t assured. Those ApEx spoke to say these are just superficial provisions to mask the EC’s lack of efforts to include voters with disabilities in the upcoming elections.

Only 100 out of the 22,000 polling stations have some sort of disabled-friendly infrastructure. These too have been set up with the help of the National Federation of the Disabled, Nepal (NFDN) and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES). The commission says the 100 polling booths have been set up as models for future elections. The commission seems to have a ‘something is better than nothing’ approach to inclusiveness. The EC doesn’t have any data on the number of voters with disabilities. Electoral materials too haven’t been readied in required formats such as audio, Braille, sign language, and easy-to-read.

However, the commission still insists it has worked on making the election inclusive. Surya Prasad Arya, information officer, EC, says they are determined to abide by the constitution and even have a separate budget to make polls disabled-friendly. In July, the commission informed IFES that 100 booths wouldn’t be enough and sought additional help from them. There was no response, he says. But people with disabilities wonder why the government looks for outside assistance without doing the bare minimum itself. What is the election budget spent on when the commission seeks help from the private sector for most of its needs, muses Budathoki.

Kiran Shilpakar, chairperson of the National Association of Physical Disabled-Nepal, says people with disabilities are denied their rights time and again on different pretexts. The elections are no different. Be it a tight budget or not enough time to plan, the election body has only excuses to offer. As a once in a five-year event, claiming to be pressed for time shows a lack of empathy, he says.

From registering to vote to voting, everything is an ordeal without disabled-friendly infrastructure, say people with disabilities. Journalist Budathoki recalls a harrowing incident when he went to get himself registered on the voter’s list. “There was no accessible way for me to reach the office in my wheelchair. I had to be carried like a sack of potatoes. It was embarrassing,” he says.

Then there’s also the issue of whether the commission can ensure fair elections when a section of the population is sidelined. Budathoki says various political parties try to convince people with disabilities to vote for them by playing on their emotions. It’s not uncommon for parties to assign workers to take people with disabilities to voting centers. This can result in the misuse of votes especially when someone requires help filling out the ballot papers. It was found that, in the 2017 federal and provincial elections, votes of the visually impaired and those with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities were misused.

Shilpakar adds that the government doesn’t want to address the issue as there’s a lot of ground to cover. People will have different kinds of needs according to the nature of their disability. Some have mobility troubles, some can’t see or hear, while others have intellectual limitations, he says. As a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities-2006, Nepal can’t remain indifferent to their issues, he adds. Moreover, election is a state event and every citizen has the right to vote. Not making it accessible for people with disabilities is a violation of their basic human rights.

Rama Dhakal, vice-president of NFDN, says they have always urged the election body to make voting easy for the disabled. There has to be a lot more public-private partnership to ensure those with disabilities aren’t excluded by the state simply for the lack of infrastructure. The 100 polling stations that NFDN has worked on in collaboration with the IFES are by no means enough but the initiative could be a start of making future elections inclusive, she says. “I take this as a milestone but more work needs to be done,” adds Dhakal.