Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Disabled being able to vote

Lebanon: Ensuring Participation of the Disabled in Elections

The inability of Lebanese citizens who are physically disabled to vote independently was poignantly captured by the Lebanese Handicapped Union (LPHU) during the 2005 elections. Danny Abou Haidar, a voter and physically disabled, is recorded on video being carried up two flights of stairs on his wheelchair by two men. The complete dependence of Mr Haidar on the two men carrying him up the stairs could not be clearer. Sylvana Lakkis, Chair Person of the LPHU, stated, “If you cannot vote in an independent way your voice cannot really be heard. In the past people who wanted to vote would have to be taken by someone to the polling station and this person could influence the vote just by the assistance they are giving. So we said this situation must change”. The LPHU in their demand for change has achieved two important steps: a new draft decree that recognizes the physically disabled right to full participation in elections and a nationwide survey the Polling Locations and Accessibility Study.

The video of Mr Haidar was part of a comprehensive campaign called “My Rights” organized by LPHU and the Youth Association for the Blind (YAB) and started in 2005. The aim of this campaign was to promote the political and social rights of people with disabilities in Lebanon. The campaign targeted public and private institutions through prominent media campaigns, while also informed people with physical disabilities that they have the “right to vote in dignity and independently”. Four years later and another election year, the “My Rights” campaign has continued its progress. On the 20th January 2009, a new draft decree was issued by the Minister of Interior Ziad Baroud stating that: the government should ensure the full participation of persons with disabilities in the electoral process. This draft decree is the first attempt by the government to safeguard the opportunity of people with disabilities to vote. Interior Minister Baroud stated that, “Lebanon has a lot to do before the accessibility of polling stations reaches international standards and I realize that access is not the only issue when it comes to the disabled being able to vote but this decree is an important first step.”

The most important part however is not the decree itself but the Polling Locations and Accessibility Study, accompanying the decree. This project will assess the accessibility of all the 1,779 possible locations for polling stations in the upcoming 2009 elections. For the first time Lebanon will find out what the state of accessibility is like at polling stations across the nation. The immediate results of this survey will be to ensure that there is at least one polling station in each district of Lebanon that is accessible for the physically disabled. Hussam Hassan, of Arabia GIS, the company responsible for the accessibility assessment stated that in all the 1,779 possible polling locations, “a full survey is being carried out, with pictures taken of the various accessibility hazards and GPS [Global Positioning System] coordinates sent”. Through a team of roughly 30 people, of which half is made up of volunteers from LPHU, the survey, photos and GPS coordinates will be sent back to the Arabia GIS headquarters in Beirut and then compiled into a interactive map. At the end of April this interactive map will be made accessible on the LPHU website so that anyone will be able to look up where their nearest accessible polling station is located and the facilities available with regard to accessibility. LPHU after the survey is completed will discuss with the Interior Ministry the best way forward in improving the accessibility of polling stations across the country. “Part of the new decree also reviews the definitions and the criteria of an accessible polling station,” Lakkis said, “and this will mean for the 2010 municipality election when polling stations are chosen they must apply to this new criteria.”

However, the number of polling stations that will be accessible for the 2009 election looks to be extremely low and was outlined in the pilot accessibility project. The pilot report concluded that of the 70 buildings in Beirut only two are, “well equipped to receive people with disability during the elections, without any intervention,” and another seven where intervention is possible before the voting process begins. “We have a long way to go, the whole of Lebanon is inaccessible for us,” Lakkis said, “but as the polling stations are usually always in schools we are trying to ensure that the government allocates a budget line to ensure that in the future all schools are accessible as this will ensure our three main rights: education, political participation and also access to emergency shelters, as schools are often used as places where people go in emergencies.”

How many people will benefit from greater accessibility is a subject of constant debate because the number of disabled people in Lebanon is unknown. Throughout the whole of the MENA region accurate statistics remain elusive primarily due to: a lack of accurate census data, no single agreed upon definition and shame regarding disability. For Lebanon the most quoted figure is from a UNDP survey from 1990 that recorded that 10% of the Lebanese population is disabled. This figure would mean that Lebanon has an average number of disabled people in the MENA region but it must be noted that this figure is contested and outdated. The only truly accurate figure that exists is 70,000 and this figure represents the number of disability cards issued by the Ministry of Interior. “However, many people don’t know where to register for the cards and we know there are many more disabled especially with the war in 2006 and the large number of serious car accidents that happen on the roads of Lebanon,” Lakkis said.

While it will remain unknown how many physically disabled people there are in Lebanon; in April for the first time what will be known is where, throughout the country, it is possible for the physically disabled to access polling stations and what is needed to be done to improve access to these polling stations. Further to this, the government for the first time ever, in the form of the draft decree, has acknowledged that it has a responsibility towards the physically disabled in fulfilling their right to vote. Lakkis stated that, “the draft decree and the accessibility review that will go online in April have already gone a long way in improving the participation of the physically disabled in Lebanese society. Both of these will allow many more people to have their rightful say in the 2009 elections and the many to come.”

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