From the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) Chairman, Prof Mahmood Yakubu has come a strong assurance for Persons With Disabilities (PWDs) in Nigeria, that the Commission would do everything possible to ensure their full participation in the electoral process.
Speaking at the public presentation of a Report on Disability Votes Matter, an event organized by Inclusive Friends on 25th October in Abuja,
Prof. Yakubu said that Commission had, since the last general elections (2015), and as part of preparations for the 2019 general elections been developing a Disability Framework to make electoral services more accessible to PWDs. A Disability Policy, he said, has now been drafted and a Plan of Action also developed.
The Plan aims at: developing operational plans, processes and related instructions that take the needs of PWDs into account; designing layouts of polling stations to make them more accessible to PWDs; procuring magnifying glasses, tactile stickers for ballots boxes, large grip pens and other materials to assist PWDs and making cubicles, booths more accessible to wheelchair users.
Besides, the Plan also intends to develop a tactile ballot guide; accredit observers with disabilities, collate gender disaggregated data for PWDs and develop targeted messages, materials suitable for education methodology to reach PWDs; work closely with groups and organizations that work with PWDs to maximize impact of voter education campaigns and produce educational materials in braille and large font.
Giving the background, Prof Yakubu said: “Soon after the 2011 General Elections, the Commission developed an extensive 5-year Strategic Plan covering the period 2012-2016. This initiative gave the Commission a strategic direction for its programmes and activities for the next Electoral Cycle. The Plan, which had five strategic objectives, was implemented through the Strategic Programme of Action and the widely acclaimed success of the 2015 General Elections is to a large extent attributable to the diligent implementation of the Plan.
“Soon after the 2015 General Elections, the Commission embarked on a review of the Plan. Extensive deliberations at various levels of the Commission and input from broad consultations with stakeholders, including PWDs, led to the development of the second Strategic Plan, covering the current electoral cycle (2017-2021). The current plan seeks to build on the successes of the preceding Plan to consolidate the conduct of free, fair and credible elections in Nigeria. In addition, the Plan prioritises on strengthening the Commission as an organization, by improving its operational processes, procedures and capabilities.”
Prof Yakubu admitted that PWDs were more likely to experience discrimination while their physical conditions do not always make it possible for them to uphold and claim their rights. “As a nation, we must support their dignity, rights and well-being as essential conditions for equity and justice,” he insisted.
Describing participation in political and public life as a critical element of socially inclusive development, he averred: “Such participation is not only a cardinal requirement for national development, but also an important means of overcoming exclusion and discrimination, as well as the dismantling of other barriers frequently faced by persons with disabilities. While the right to participate in politics and public life is well established in both international conventions and domestic laws, persons with disabilities are frequently denied their rights or are unable to exercise such rights in a variety of ways and for a variety of reasons.”
He continued: “For example, the right to vote and to be voted for is generally recognized as a human right. One of the fundamental responsibilities of any Election Management Body (EMB) such as INEC is to ensure that all citizens of voting age exercise their fundamental rights to vote and be voted for. Such rights also ensure that citizens, especially Persons with Disabilities (PWDs), have stronger voice in public affairs.”
The INEC Chairman also spoke on what he described as “substantial challenges and opportunities” facing stakeholders in their efforts to provide accessible electoral and other services for PWDs. The first challenge, he observed, is the legal process. His words: “There is a need to deepen the legal framework to more systematically begin to address issues of accessibility in both public and private facilities. This will perhaps require changes in building codes and road construction that will require all public and private buildings to be constructed with accessibility provisions for the convenience of PWDs since the Commission uses mainly public places (schools, town halls or similar public spaces where our polling units are usually located) for elections.”
On the second challenge, he said: “We do not currently know the extent of literacy amongst PWDs. However, if the picture in the wider population is an indicator, a large percentage of PWDs will require literacy in order to be conversant with the braille before they can effectively use it in making their choices on election day.”
On the third challenge, he said: “for the Commission to effectively and efficiently provide electoral services to PWDs, it is important to know the size, location, type and gender of PWDs. The paucity of this information makes efforts to provide services very costly. Thus, procurement for the braille, for example, would have to be done at every of the over 120,000 polling units across the country, even in those Polling Units where there may be no need for it. Such information will save time and resources, for the braille and other electoral services can be provided only in the places where they may be needed. Already, the Commission has piloted the collection of disaggregated data of new registrants by type of disability during the voter registration exercise in Anambra State in August 2017 ahead of the Governorship election scheduled for Saturday 18th November 2017.”
Speaking on the Report, the Reviewer, Dr Otive Igbuzor said the document was a research study carried out to examine the accessibility of PWDs to polling units and elections materials during the 2016 governorship elections in Edo and Ondo states. He explained that the study utilized a sample-based methodology with statistical principles and Information and Communication Technology to observe the elections.
He said the Report discovered that polling units and voting cubicles were not always physically accessible to those who were unable to walk or had walking impairment. About 6.5 percent of the polling units in Edo and 77 percent in Ondo were located in places that were inaccessible for PWDs.
The Report revealed that election materials were not produced in Braille or tactile, nor where officials who could communicate in sign language to those with hearing impairments available in all polling units.
Dr Igbuzor said the Report also indicated that Election Day instructions were not always pasted for the benefit of hearing impaired voters in 90 percent of the polling units in Edo and 87 percent of those in Ondo. The Report revealed that ballot boxes were placed in such a way that PWDs could not independently cast their ballots. “Meanwhile, PWDs received assistance from their nominees to enable them cast their votes in only 19 percent of the polling units visited in Edo and 27 percent in Ondo,” he said.
He called on the federal, state and local governments to ensure the availability of PWD friendly walkways, ramps and handrails in public structures, including where polling units are located.