5 MIN READ
Article 1 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) defines persons with disabilities as persons 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”.
The international legal framework seeks to ensure that persons with disabilities enjoy the same rights that able-bodied people enjoy. But the truth is that they usually face social, legal and, most importantly, practical barriers in claiming and fully enjoying their rights. In Nepal particularly, disabled people encounter enormous discrimination and marginalization, and such challenges persist even when they want to exercise a fundamental right — their right to vote.
This is a result of a lack of awareness among people regarding the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Most people don’t even know of its existence. Article 29 of the convention clearly states that “voting procedures, facilities and materials must be appropriate, accessible and easy to understand for use by persons with disabilities”.
Nepal’s Constitution 2015 Article 42(1) also argues that persons with disabilities and other marginalized communities shall have the right to participate in the State bodies on the basis of the principle of inclusion.
Nepal’s election laws also say that separate queues should be available for voters with disability or illness, the elderly, pregnant women and new mothers. The law further says that voters with disabilities may be accompanied by a polling officer, or an immediate family member permitted by the polling officer, to mark their ballots.
Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2017 Section 11 also 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 the right to cast vote voluntarily with or without someone’s support. The Government of Nepal shall make appropriate provisions for persons with disability to access, understand and use the polling process, facilities, and materials.
However, despite broad legal protections, persons with disabilities continue to be marginalized from full participation in society. Resource allocation for disability is inadequate and government plans and programs are not fully disability inclusive. The electoral framework too is silent on guaranteeing accessibility for persons with disability during the entire election process: from access to the voter registration centers up to the filing of nominations and complaints or the examination of campaign finance reports at Nepal’s Election Commission headquarters.
Despite the elaborate provisions on including persons with disabilities in political and public life in Nepal, political participation by persons with disabilities remains minimal. The barriers to their participation are roughly split into five categories — architectural and physical; attitudinal and cultural; informational and communication; legal and policy; and factors related to socio economic status.
Architectural and physical
Physical inaccessibility remains an enormous barrier for persons with disabilities. Public transport remains largely inaccessible for most persons with disabilities due to the design of public service vehicles and the attitude of the operators, who often decline to transport wheel-chair users or charge them extra for loading their wheelchairs. Many persons with disabilities, therefore, avoid activities that would require them to leave home, including voting and participating at political rallies.
Also, many polling stations are overcrowded during voting, and are characterized by long queues. The long queues are a great strain on persons with disabilities.
Attitudinal and cultural
Attitudes towards persons with disabilities remain a major hindrance to their equal and full participation in society. Many youths with disabilities are concealed by their families from birth, thus being excluded from birth and national registration.
Some persons with disabilities also experience stigma in voter identification and national registration processes because they do not have fingers for imprinting during the identification process. This stigma causes them to opt out of national registration and voter registration exercises.
Informational and communication barriers
This occurs when methods of sharing information are not accessible. For example, printed materials are not accessible to persons who are blind, and radio is inaccessible to persons who are deaf.
Persons with intellectual disabilities, for example, require information in easy-to-read format. Persons with visual impairments require facilities such as screen readers. While technology holds great potential to increase participation of persons with disabilities, the high costs of the necessary devices, internet and training on their use preclude many people, especially in remote rural areas, from acquiring the necessary equipment to facilitate their participation.
Legal and policy
Nepal’s election laws do not address persons with disabilities effectively. The election laws refer to 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.
Many people with disabilities have lower levels of education and belong to low-income families. Both poverty and disability result in stigma and social exclusion and ultimately result in limited electoral participation.
Poverty further precludes persons with physical and sensory disabilities from accessing assistive devices and technologies necessary for participation. Without resources, it is also impossible to mount effective campaigns for elections for public office. It is asserted that even the reduced nomination fees introduced by the Election Commission are beyond the reach of most persons with disabilities who wish to vie for elective office.
The right to vote is one of modern democracy’s cornerstones. Yet, persons with disabilities, especially persons with intellectual and psychosocial disabilities continue to be deprived of their right to vote. To ensure that everyone gets to exercise this right, Nepalis must educate each other about disability and disability rights, and work together to ensure equal access at polling places and at the ballot box.
In addition, polling places and electoral systems as a whole must be accessible to safeguard equal access to the ballot box. Nepal’s democracy is only as strong as its ability to hear the voices of all Nepalis.
The Nepal government should also provide all the support that persons with disabilities require, including personal assistants of their choice. There are other small initiatives the government can take on to assist persons with disabilities at polling places, such as: instructions, printed in large type, displayed at each polling place; a magnifying lens to place over the booklet; sample ballots in large type; a large-handled stylus, if needed; information by telecommunications devices for the deaf; and at least one electronic voting machine equipped with accessibility features, including an audio mode for people with visual disabilities.
Exercising equal and effective participation in political events is every citizen’s right. Like every citizen, persons with disabilities also should have the room to exercise this right at every level.
Dev Datta Joshi By advocating about inclusion, voting, and lawsuits in disability rights, Mr. Dev Datta Joshi works to empower Nepal’s population of over 600,000 persons with disabilities, especially in rural areas. He brings over 20 years’ rich work experience on advancing disability rights in Nepal. As the executive director with Equip for Equality Nepal (EEN), he leads a dynamic team responsible for the development, implementation, and replication of innovative projects such as “Ensure Voting Rights of Persons with Disabilities” to promote the human rights of disabled people in Nepal. Dev's LLM dissertation at the National University of Ireland, Galway's Center for Disability Law and Policy focused on inclusive education for children with disabilities, drawing on field research he undertook in remote rural far west Nepal.
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