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Electoral Access for People with Disabilities

July 25, 2013

A smiling woman in a black shirtAnais Keenon graduated magna cum laude from the University of Oregon in 2012 with a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism: Advertising. After her internship experience at Mobility International USA and free lancing a feature story on people with disabilities in Ghana, Ms. Keenon became inspired to pursue a career advocating for disability inclusion in development work. She is now halfway through a Master’s program in International Development at Gallaudet University, known as the world’s only major university for the Deaf, and is expected to graduate in June 2014.   Anais is completing her Youth in Development (YiD) internship at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), which has worked in more than 135 countries to support citizens’ rights to participate in free and fair elections.  In this blog post, Anais shares some of the new knowledge she has gained via her YiD internship about electoral access for people with disabilities globally.  She is one of the first cohort of seven students with disabilities from across the United States to be brought to the Washington, DC, area to complete internships at various international organizations in the DC area this summer.

Connect with Anais via her LinkedIn profile at: http://www.linkedin.com/in/anaiskeenon

Electoral access seems deceptively simple, but in reality it encompasses five goals. In a given country, people with disabilities should have: the right vote; access to voting booths and ballots; the right to be elected; the right to remain in office if their disability is acquired during their term of service; and finally, to be supported in these rights by the proactive and inclusive efforts of their government.

There are legal, political, social and economic aspects to consider when advocating for any of the above. For one thing, just because a country’s legal laws assert the electoral rights of people with disabilities, it doesn’t guarantee that the government will fund or support efforts for electoral inclusion. One of the world’s most progressive constitutions for electoral accessibility belongs to Zimbabwe, a notoriously impoverished, landlocked and politically unstable region. Conversely, without accessibility laws there are no legal grounds that people with disabilities can take advantage of when they want to advocate for their rights. As an example, the United States has a federal law called the Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act of 1973, requiring all voting facilities to be accessible. Americans with disabilities who are dissatisfied with the accessibility of their voting facility have legal recourse to resolve the situation.

I mention all of this because much of my internship work involves reviewing the constitutions and electoral laws of countries and territories, in preparation for the renovation of ElectionAccess.org. I’ve been able to read through most of the legislation in Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and North America. It’s been striking to see examples of countries that are still so far behind in guaranteeing electoral access, such as Botswana, and examples of countries that are relatively progressive and even trailblazing for their regions, such as Ecuador and Kenya.

Most recently I’ve started to review state constitutions and laws in the United States to develop an understanding of the legal voting rights of Americans with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities. Frankly, the language I’ve read so far – both in the United States and in the regions I previously mentioned – strongly underlines the need for education about disability and electoral access at all levels of society, both national and international. People with intellectual disabilities absolutely can and are able to participate in the electoral process, as are most people with psychosocial disabilities. They should have equal opportunity to hold these rights as any other citizen does.

One of the hidden benefits – or costs – of living in the United States is that the rights to vote and be elected is an idea so embedded in our cultural mores that it is easy to forget that they are not guaranteed rights that automatically manifests into an all-accessible electoral process. They are rights that many people with disabilities in the world, including Americans with disabilities, are constantly struggling to achieve in their efforts to make their societies truly, fully inclusive, and to have a platform where their voices can be heard on an equal basis as any other. While electoral laws may be only paper for some countries, they are at least a tangible start towards the recognition of what should be fundamental human rights.

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