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IEC encourages South Africans with disabilities to vote, but apathy is rife

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From Daily Maverick: The Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) has taken progressive measures to work towards ensuring that the voting process becomes more accessible to all South Africans, regardless of their physical abilities. 

A national survey conducted by the Southern African Institute of Business Accountants (Saiba) in 2019, found that many voting stations were not fully accessible to people with disabilities.

“We developed a questionnaire based on international standards on what is acceptable. We trained our members on using this checklist and we sent them out into the field. Their findings were revealing. Not all the polling stations were adequately equipped,” said Saiba CEO Nicolaas van Wyk   

Some of the problems that voters with disabilities face are inaccessible voting venues, inadequate toilet facilities at venues and tables too high — making it impossible to reach the ballot box for a wheelchair user or someone who is short of stature. 

This, however, is not an uncommon experience as people living with disabilities face barriers to their equal participation in society daily. Activities that are often taken for granted by able-bodied people — going to the bank, grocery shopping, getting to work — can require up to 10 times the amount of energy and resources to achieve. 

A woman who wished to remain anonymous said she felt embarrassed to admit that she had never voted before, despite having worked in government for almost a decade. Her reason is that she doesn’t believe the system is run effectively and the effort needed to be exerted as a person living with a disability is simply not worth it.

She is not alone in her sentiment. Disability rights activist Lidia Pretorius says, “Many persons with disabilities feel that there is no use in voting because they believe that nothing will change in their situation.”

Though it is true that many voting stations are inaccessible, the IEC has taken steps to ensure the voting process is improved each year for persons with disabilities.

“The IEC is committed to not discriminating against anyone and has progressively gotten better after each election,” former IEC senior manager Shameme Manjoo told Daily Maverick.

She explained measures had been put in place, such as training electoral staff to help persons with disabilities at voter stations and to employ staff with disabilities.

She said the IEC had also worked with organisations representing persons with disabilities to ensure that more people could exercise their right to vote. For example, working with the South African National Council for the Blind, the IEC has developed a voting aid called the Universal Ballot Template which is used to help persons with disabilities vote independently and secretly.

A voter registration system launched this year also made it possible for first-time voters to register online, thereby making it easier for those who cannot easily travel to voter stations to participate. 

Eligible voters who are unable to travel to a voting station can also apply for a special vote, which allows them to vote from their residence on 30 and 31 October. 

Applications for special votes opened on 20 September and will close on 4 October 2021.

Western Cape ANC MPL Cameron Dugmore and DA MEC in the province Albert Fritz told Daily Maverick their parties were focused on getting people registered to vote, and to the polls. Dugmore says his party is working hard to get everyone to the polls but “particularly the elderly who are not mobile, and people living with different forms of disability”. 

It can only be hoped that all political parties mobilise for persons with disabilities not just at election time, but all year round, so that all voters can feel confident in their leaders’ ability to represent them and advocate for their rights.