Webinar: Promoting Access and Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities
“Democracy works when all people have a voice in how they are governed.” Unfortunately, many persons with disabilities are excluded from equal access to electoral and political processes. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it more difficult for persons with disabilities to be included due to restrictions of movement imposed by governments, a higher risk of being immunocompromised and a reduction in everyday, in-person interactions that serve as a primary tool for exchanging information and socializing.
Given the numerous barriers and risks that persons with disabilities face during the COVID-19 crisis, there is an even greater need for awareness and innovative measures to facilitate equal access to political participation and information during elections. To help raise awareness on how to build an inclusive community and democracy during the pandemic, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) organized the fourth installment of its Democratic Resilience in Europe During a Pandemic webinar series to discuss “How to Build a Democracy That’s Designed for All? Promoting Access and Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities” in electoral and political processes. A total of 93 participants from over 15 different countries participated via Zoom. The webinar featured simultaneous interpretation into six sign languages (American, Armenian, Georgian, Macedonian, Russian and South Slavic) and five national languages (Armenian, Georgian, Macedonian, Russian and South Slavic).
The webinar was opened by IFES Senior Global Advisor for Inclusion Virginia Atkinson, who spoke to the obstacles faced by persons with disabilities while participating in political life, including countries’ discriminatory legal frameworks, physical barriers or inaccessible information. Atkinson noted that, during the pandemic, the participation of persons with disabilities is increasingly difficult due to the digital divide and heightened health risks. Atkinson also highlighted several success stories and best practices, such as developing political materials in accessible formats or maintaining sense of community and common purpose during lockdown. This includes organizing activities like Instagram Live sessions on how to manage feelings of isolation and anxiety brought on by the pandemic and promoting hygiene measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Atkinson also noted the need for crisis management training and psychosocial support for disabled people’s organization (DPOs) working on democracy and governance during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The next presenter was Seinep Dyikanbaeva from the Public Organization of Parents of Children with Disabilities in Kyrgyzstan. Dyikanbaeva spoke about the important progress that Kyrgyzstan has made in access and inclusion, from persons with disabilities not being able to run for office to the election management body and civil society organizations coming together to create inclusive policies and conditions for people with disabilities, both at the legislative level and in practice. She highlighted how evidence-based advocacy is difficult in Kyrgyzstan given the lack of “statistical information about the number of voters with disabilities in the public domain, including a gender breakdown or a complete accessibility status of polling stations throughout the country.” She noted how these, and other barriers, contribute to the apathy felt by voters with disabilities. As for recommendations, Dyikanbaeva stressed the need to continuously work to create an accessible environment and inclusive electoral process, including by people with disabilities conducting pre-election, election and post-election monitoring.
Mariam Mikiashvili, deputy director of Georgia’s No 202 School for Blind and Visually Impaired Children, talked about the historical overview of Georgian elections regarding the participation of women and men with disabilities and 2015 reform related to their participation. With Georgia preparing for elections in November, Mikiashvili also outlined key accessibility issues during the election process, which include a lack of ability to vote by mail and the additional risk imposed on people with visual disabilities, as assistance to get to the polling station and cast their vote requires hand-to-hand contact. Mariam also spoke about recent improvements like accessible information, such as videos with captions, sign language interpretation and tactile ballot guides.
Yuliia Sachuk, civil activist and nongovernmental organization coordinator at Fight for Right from Ukraine, talked about the recent changes to Ukraine’s electoral code, which contains a range of provisions for persons with disabilities, including a requirement that all polling stations must be accessible by 2025; a requirement that the media provide sign language interpretation or subtitles; and simplification of communication with the State Register of Voters, which can be done online. The Central Election Commission of Ukraine also established an Election Access Working Group involving DPOs in systematic work and providing feedback and expertise about all aspects of the electoral cycle. Sachuk concluded her presentation by noting the importance of the opportunities for women and girls with disabilities to actively participate in the political life of the country.
The webinar concluded with a presentation from Gaël Martin-Micallef, legal adviser from the Venice Commission, who discussed international instruments like the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities and Revised Interpretative Declaration to the Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters on the Participation of People with Disabilities in Elections. Gael also talked about the new report on Respect for Democracy Human Rights and Rule of Law During States of Emergency: Reflections and specifically mentioned the section on elections under states of emergency, which is notable given the restricting impact elections during such circumstances have on the rights of persons with disabilities.
Good practices and lessons learned discussed during the webinar will be used to inform future IFES programming across Europe and continue working toward building more inclusive democracies around the world.
Published on January 21, 2021.