This issue has often been raised lately in European countries. Every year European countries introduce something new to election process making it more accessible for potentially discriminated groups including people with disabilities. They still have lots of problems in this sphere but they also understand that: participation of people with disabilities in political life is an important indicator of accessibility and democracy of the country on the whole.
Not so long ago the Office’s director Enira Bronitskaya took part in monitoring of accessibility of elections in Spain.
- My role was to analyze if Spaniards with disabilities can vote and if the elections are accessible for them.
We should remind that Spain was one of the first countries in the world which signed the Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities. It means that the country shouldn’t let any discrimination of people with disabilities.
Legally capable citizens who turned 18 can take part in elections in Spain. But the peculiarity is that according to the law a person who was found incapable is not automatically deprived of the right to vote. There should be a special judicial decision prohibiting to vote.
But on practice it is not so easy. About 99 percent of people who were deprived of capacity are prohibited to vote automatically. A person can initiate a process of the return of a right to vote (there were such cases in Spain), but this procedure can last a yearlong! – says Enira. – In order to prove that you can vote you have to answer several questions concerning political processes. I think that not every person without disability, who is not especially interested in this topic, can answer these questions…
But at the same time article 29 “Participation in political and social life” of the international Convention guarantees for people with disabilities equal political rights and possibilities.
Another aspect – possibility to realize electoral right in practice. For example, in Spain it is difficult to say that all polling stations are accessible and it is easy to get there. But according to specialists the situation is getting better.
Blind or visually impaired people are also being taken care of in Spain. In some time before elections you can ask for a bulletin in Brail. Preliminary order is also good because it gives a possibility to save – you don’t have to publish more materials that it is needed. During the last election more than 1000 people asked for such bulletins. Belarus can also use such practice – says the Office’s specialist.
There is such a practice in Spain: every citizen can become a member of an electoral commission. It is decided by a lottery. Some people can officially refuse to do it: people older than 65. But very often people with some health issues refuse to be a member. They can’t become one because of the absence of accessibility and special conditions, because people with disabilities have to be provided with a personal assistant, a sign language interpreter etc.
In case when a sign language interpreter is needed it is decided at the legislative level and an interpreter should be provided for free for a commission’s member who uses sign language. The last time the state hired interpreters for 20 members of commissions. Another situation is with people with visual impairments. They asked to prepare all the necessary document using other fonts but it wasn’t done. There also are legal problems with personal assistants.
There are no limitations of the right to be elected in Spain but the state doesn’t have any obligations concerning disabled people (for example, there are special quotas for the representation of women-candidates).
-At first we were lobbying this issue but stopped later because citizens are not ready to get rid of the existing stereotypes, only few people with disabilities are running for parliament during this election. In England there is an extra financial support for candidates with disabilities which is used for electoral campaign. But there is no such support in Spain. That is why the process of participation of people with disabilities in elections is not so dynamic.
According to experts of the Office for the rights of persons with disabilities the situation with political accessibility is even more difficult.
- The only step that was made is the provision of polling stations with bulletins for persons with visual impairments. Before it these people had to ask someone for help what is legally wrong. – Says the Office’s expert. - Now only about 10 percent of polling stations are accessible for people with disabilities. First of all, because local administrations, which provide electoral process, rarely think of accessibility. The situation can be gradually changed: it is enough to choose for polling stations not usual places (for example, local schools), but accessible ones.
Another problem is that meetings with candidates are also held in inaccessible places. We can observe first changes in Belarus and there is a possibility that the fact that Belarus signed the Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities can change the situation.