The way a country treats its ‘dis-abled’ population (or rather, its ‘ability restricted’ people) and the true extent to which they are respected as fully-fledged citizens is a realistic internationally-recognised measure of a country’s good governance, reflects its human rights image and is a far more telling indicator of society’s development than GDP
Entitled 20A, we are about to bring reforms to Chapter XIV of our Constitution concerning elections, in the larger interest of the country and its people.
Every citizen of Sri Lanka who qualifies under Article 88 has the right to vote and furthermore, to be entitled to vote his name shall be entered in the appropriate register of electors.
We still believe everyone fulfilling both these criteria the Constitution stipulates shall afforded a hindrance-free opportunity to go to cast his vote with dignity and safety. However, this is not the reality!
The bitter truth
People with restricted mobility, stability and vision, often face considerable barriers in reaching the ballot box – metaphorically and physically.
I am aware of many people who very much had the desire to go and cast their valuable vote but have been reluctantly compelled to refrain from exercising this democratic right due to red tape involved in filling forms, getting prior approvals, etc., as well as overcoming the hindrances of safety hazards and physical barriers either in approaching their polling stations and/or accessing their voting booths, even if accompanied by a helper.
Research indicates that significant numbers of these eligible voters, especially the elders and those using wheelchairs, are often discouraged, marginalised or deprived of the opportunity to vote and thus unable to enjoy this democratic right for franchise.
As such Article 88 of our Constitution as it stands today, fails to provide the constitutional protection for equal opportunity for all – especially the largest minority group of our people – to enjoy the democratic right to franchise enabling the approach/enter polling stations and access/use the voting booths with safety and with dignity. Reforming Article 88, hence, is an indispensable high priority need.
Justice delayed is justice denied
In many districts, casting their vote could become the crucial deciding factor. Accessibility of polling stations and voting booths, regardless of the degree of mobility, stability and sight, is thus of vital importance. This can no more be taken lightly nor can be sporadic.
Leaders seeking our votes must wake-up from slumber to recognise the country’s biggest minority group – a huge voting base when their families are also added.
Legislation recognises ‘a public building’ as any government or private sector building, temporary or permanent, the public use in daily life. This includes all polling stations and voting booths the staff of the commissioner of elections identify, pick and accept for use at elections.
At most places the staff on election duty are quite helpful and understanding. However, the Elections Commissioner is the independent watchdog. He should make certain that everyone who is qualified and entitled to vote, irrespective of their degree of mobility, stability and eyesight, gets a hindrance-free opportunity to enjoy this democratic right that is enjoyed by other citizens in the same society.
Voters who are impaired visually need assistance inside in getting around. Those with poor stability or dexterity limitations need to sit whilst voting.
The largest minority group of people
Every one of us, inevitably, undergoes a process of decay and either suffers a natural or man-made disaster (includes war victims) or numerous debilitating conditions or is convalescing after surgery or illnesses.
Unable to move freely, they form the largest minority group of people, robbed and restricted of their ability. They are often forced silently to fight daily an uphill battle in approaching, accessing and using public buildings and facilities – even the new and recently renovated ones – which is an essential prerequisite in everyone’s normal life.
In spite of unanimous approval by Parliament and orders by the Supreme Court stating violations are a serious punishable offence, the violators, often backed by political powers, still, continue to go free; the victims are stranded and must either plead and earn the good-will of violators or suffer further!
With promises given by ‘yahapalanaya,’ can we victims find true solace here soon?
A malady of national importance
Enacted by the Parliament of Sri Lanka, Act No. 28 for the Promotion, Advancement and Protection of Rights of Persons with dis-Abilities came into effect from 24th October 1996.
Clause 23(2) of this Act clearly states: “No person on the ground of disability, be subject to any liability, restriction or condition with regard to access to, or use of, any building or any place which any other member of the, public has access to or is entitled to use.”
Polling stations and voting booths, hence, are covered by this act.
Over the past 10 years, we have heard politicians and bureaucrats talk ebulliently of integration of those with restricted ability into society for full participation in all spheres of daily life as useful and equal partners. Although the measures required to achieve them are low cost and easily feasible, they have not become meaningful reality to any significant degree.
As discriminatory attitudes and practices still continue, increasingly significant numbers of this biggest minority group tend to live in the shadows and margins of society, and as a result their rights remain overlooked, even concerning franchise.
A costly ongoing blunder
It is a repeatedly proven costly blunder to believe most professionals in the building construction industry are competent enough to establish a society inclusive and accessible to all.
Complying with standards to ensure accessibility with safety is a specialised job.
It is not one where standards and specifications can be read and easily applied in bits and pieces here and there. This practice causes waste and added safety hazards.
Human rights cannot be picked and chosen
The way a country treats its ‘dis-abled’ population (or rather, its ‘ability restricted’ people) and the true extent to which they are respected as fully-fledged citizens is a realistic internationally-recognised measure of a country’s good governance, reflects its human rights image and is a far more telling indicator of society’s development than GDP.
Voting is your democratic right to enjoy! Access at voting really means access for justice. Voters with restricted ability should have the same opportunity for access and participation as all other voters have. Good governance under Maithri-Ranil rule can no more afford to overlook enjoying of this right by the largest minority group of people.
It is the moral duty of all MPs equally, to propose, promote and bring this reform to Article 88 under 20A. Let’s see who has the inner strength to bell the cat.
Add a paragraph at the end of article 88 to read, in full, as follows:
“Every person shall, unless disqualified as hereinafter provided, be qualified to be an elector at the election of the President and of the Members of Parliament or to vote at any Referendum:
“Provided that no such person shall be entitled to vote unless his name is entered in the appropriate register of electors.
“No person qualified to be an elector and be entitled to vote, shall, on the ground of limitation in physical and/or sensory ability, be subject to any liability, restriction, marginalisation, safety hazard or condition with regard to enjoying the democratic right to vote in accessing a polling station and/or voting booth, to which any other member of the public has access or is entitled to use.”
[The writer, Chief Executive of ‘Idiriya,’ is a widely experienced accessibility activist, advisor and auditor, which facts have been befittingly recognised even by reputed bodies overseas. For more information please see http://goo.gl/3FWyW.]