Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Voters with disabilities require more accessible polling places in the country

Photo of persons with disabilities who had cast their postal ballots in Thimphu on 14th April 2018. Image courtesy: the official FB page of Disabled Persons' Association of Bhutan

Elections are a great opportunity for ordinary citizens to make their voices heard in the nation’s political process. It is more important for persons with disabilities to exercise their right to vote and add their voices to the national debate since they represent one of the largest minority groups in the country. As a developing country, Bhutan is estimated to have at least 10 percent of its total population with some kind of disability as per the World Disability Report published by World Health Organization in 2011. This means that we have at least 70,000 Bhutanese living with some kind of disability in the country and if we also include old-age people who require special arrangements to lead an independent life every day, this figure could be even higher. So the political spectrum of the country will not be complete without the participation of persons with disabilities in the elections.

In 2008 when Bhutan was preparing for the first ever parliamentary elections, the then Chief Election Commissioner of Bhutan, Dasho Kunzang Wangdi was wise enough to realize the importance of empowering voters with disabilities. He commissioned the transcription of Voter Education Guidebook into braille so that persons with visual impairment didn’t have to depend on others to understand the electoral process that the country was preparing for. “As the Chief Election Commissioner of Bhutan, I assure you my full support if you ever decide to join politics even as a candidate” he said during the celebration of International Day of Persons with Disabilities on 3rd December 2010. It was perhaps because of this blessing that the Election Commission of Bhutan has been trying its best to reach out to voters with disabilities and help them cast their vote without much hinderance.

Nevertheless, there is still a lot of things to be done on the ground to ensure the full participation of persons with disabilities in the electoral process. With no accessible polling stations and no institutionalized support system for voters with disabilities in the country, there are still many persons with physical and other sensory disabilities locked up at their homes. These people are intelligent enough to make decisions for themselves and the nation, but are deprived of the opportunity to exercise their right to vote during the national and local elections. . These physical and social barriers form the major dividing line between persons with disabilities and their non-disabled counterparts. As a result, many persons with disabilities still feel neglected and sidelined when they cannot come out of their homes to cast their vote.

But the Election Commission of Bhutan is gradually trying to break these barriers to allow persons with disabilities to come out of their closets and meaningfully participate in the political process of the nation. On 14th April 2018, exactly a decade after the first parliamentary elections, over 48 persons with disabilities were able to cast their postal ballots independently in Thimphu for the upcoming National Council Election. The Postal Ballot Booth which was set up at Harmony Youth Center was equipped with ramps for wheelchair users and necessary support services were in place to help them cast their vote in a free and fair manner. What was good about this arrangement was that even the spouses of the voters could vote with them, which means that voters with disabilities did not have to look for separate escorts to get to the polling station. Now that this noble idea has already been successfully tested, it would be worth exploring possibilities for making similar arrangements in all the polling stations across the country during the future elections so that all voters with disabilities can easily come to cast their vote. More importantly, there should be clearly defined provisions in our electoral laws to institutionalize a system to ensure that the entire political process is accessible for voters with disabilities so that they can easily exercise their right to vote and contribute to nation-building. The Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan guarantees equal rights for persons with disabilities and hence, it is important for our electoral laws to recognize that the voices of persons with disabilities do matter and the concerned authorities should work towards making their rights real.

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