Democracy: Helping Give Everyone a Voice

By Tom Garrett, Vice President forPrograms, IRI

Since the 2006 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CPRD), the International Republican Institute (IRI) has included this population within many of its programs on governance, elections, civil society and political party support. IRI has done work to enhance the electoral participation of persons with disabilities in many countries, but in honor of today’s United Nations International Day for Persons with Disabilities, I want to relate the Institute’s early efforts a decade ago to support the electoral inclusion of persons with disabilities in Albania.

The first international election observation mission I served on was in Albania in 1996. I was deployed to rural and provincial areas of the country and, although it was not on the checklist of voting station requirements, even then I noted that many polling stations were not accessible to persons with disabilities. Often voting took place in schools or government buildings on the second floor.

Election workers and waiting voters always pitched in to help persons with disabilities move to the front of the line and be taken into the polling station. As well, persons with vision challenges were usually assisted by a poll worker or family member. This informal assistance in Albania to persons with disabilities was heartwarming and something I have witnessed in subsequent elections elsewhere, but falls short of the universal and equal suffrage which is today’s international standard.

The CPRD was critical in expanding understanding of the equal right of persons with disabilities to participate in electoral processes, moving beyond only an awareness of an individual’s disability to pressing for the obligations of the state to include persons with disabilities in the entirety of the political process. To date, 165 countries have signed the CPRD, which has the force of national law.

In preparation for the 2007 elections in Albania, IRI undertook a two track approach — one was to report on and improve physical accessibility to voting on Election Day and the other was to engage political parties on the rights and inclusion of persons with disabilities. IRI reached out to political parties and Albanian Disabled Persons Organizations (DPOs) to raise awareness of issues of importance to disabled people and to influence party platforms. The result of this partnership with DPOs and political parties was a National Platform for the Disabled, which urged integration of disability issues into political party platforms and policy agendas.

The National Platform was used in the election and then as a legislative advocacy agenda in the non-election years. Besides the political party platform development, IRI worked with DPOs to mount a citizen observation mission to document challenges to persons with disabilities on Election Day. These challenges were featured in a list of recommendations that appeared in the DPO observation report.

While the 2007 targeted program achieved some degree of success, particularly in consciousness-raising, IRI’s work with parties and DPOs continued with an eye towards the 2009 Albanian parliamentary elections. With IRI support, DPOs successfully lobbied the Albanian Central Electoral Commission (CEC) to expand access in 2009 to polling stations for the disabled. One example of these changes was making sure blind citizens were able to vote in secret, as opposed to 1996, due to the availability of Braille ballots in voting stations. Also, the CEC enabled the construction of mobile ramps in public institutions facilitating access to these voting stations.

From this beginning, IRI has conducted work for persons with disabilities in places such as Uganda, Somaliland and Nigeria, working not only on physical access issues, but on all aspects of political inclusion, from voting to party platforms to inclusion of persons with disabilities on international election observation missions to election as a candidate. The World Bank estimates that 15 percent of the world’s population has some type of disability, with one-fifth of the world living with “significant disability.” IRI work with this population, begun 10 years ago, will continue to support the greater inclusion of persons with disabilities.