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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Human Rights at State: Promoting Access of Elections for Persons With Disabilities

Judith E. Heumann
Special Advisor for International Disability Rights 
Charlotte McClain-Nhlapo, Coordinator for the Disability Development Office at USAID
Washington, DC
February 1, 2012


Good morning my name is Charlotte McClain-Nhlapo. I'm the coordinator for the Disability Development Office at USAID. It gives me great pleasure to be able to make a few remarks this morning at the regional dialogue on access to elections to persons with disabilities. This is indeed a very important issue, and before we go into why this is an important issue I would like to hand over to my colleague Judy Heumann.

Hello. I am Judy Heumann. I'm the Special Advisor for International Disability Rights at the U.S. Department of State. Charlotte and I are very excited to be able to participate with you today. Sorry we can't be there with you in person. We wanted to join together to have a small discussion on why we consider the issue of participation of disabled people in the electoral process so very important. I would like to start out by saying I'm 64 years old. I am from the United States. I grew up in Brooklyn, New York. When I first went to vote, which was a very big experience for me as a young adult. To be able to participate in the election process I was not able to get into the electoral place by myself. My father had to carry me up a number of steps. That was quite embarrassing. In addition to that it was not possible for me to independently actually vote because the ballot was too high. I had to share my vote with my father. That's one of the very important issues I think when we talk about participation in the electoral process. Our ability to be able to be independent, to come and go and to be able to exercise our right to vote in secret. If one is blind the ability to exercise your right to vote in secret meaning that you can choose someone to come in and support you in voting if it's a manual electoral ballot process. And to be able to ensure that as disabled people we are able to show ourselves and our communities that we are vital members of our communities in which to participate and working as you are during in this conference to look at ways of collaborating with government and civil society to remove barriers which have prevented you from appropriately participating.

Charlotte: I wanted to add onto what Judy said she mentioned the fact she has personal experience in voting. Unfortunately this continues to happen in the world today. A lot of persons with disabilities continue to be excluded and discriminated against in terms of voting. Therefore, we are really excited to see the ‑‑ coming together of the countries, to think about how to bring down those barriers. Article 29 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities specifically speaks to the importance of including persons with disabilities in election processes. I think it's important to recognize that we should not just focus on the physical aspect of voting, but that we need to understand it as a part of a larger Democratic process. How do we ensure that persons with disabilities are, a, voting? B, part of the process that persons with disabilities are themselves on the ballot papers. That persons are engaged in political parties and that too can be part of influencing society, and shaping society so that hopefully societies can become more inclusive.

Judy: I think that's very important. I hope that over the course of the days that you are going to be there this week, one of the things that can happen is people can also be talking about both what the positive and negative experience have been when you are or your colleagues have tried to vote. I think it's important for human rights organizations, and government participants to really more clearly understand those barriers SO that people can really get behind effective implementation of the laws which are being developed. Implementation is obviously a very important part of helping to ensure that good laws in fact become a reality. For many people now we are talking specifically about disabled individuals in your country. If people have not been able to participate people maybe fearful about coming forth, and therefore looking at activities that help raise awareness not just of nondisabled people in the community, but of disabled people themselves to be able to see that they are a part of the electoral process within your country and that the ability to join political parties, to be able to express their views within political parties. To be able to look at running for office is very important.

Charlotte: All of that takes work and takes resources. I think it's important as you think through this issue over the next couple of days is to think a bit about what kind of resources are needed to ensure that people with disabilities are in fact included. Obviously, you have the resources like making sure that voting stations are accessible. Very importantly it's going to be essential that you look at building capacity both of people who are involved in the electoral process, but also building capacity amongst persons with disabilities themselves. Building capacity is a very important issue, so training of all stakeholders requires resources, and I think it would be something that you need to think about over the next couple of days. The issue of registration of persons with disabilities is also an important issue. Again, I would urge you to think about this as you deliberate this issue over the next couple of days. I think finally we need to accept the fact that electoral processes do require resources. That the inclusion of persons with persons with disabilities is just part of that process. We shouldn't see it as an additional set of resources, but we need to see it as part of the resources that are allocated for voting in any one country that we are working in.

Judy: I think that's a very important point or a series of points that Charlotte has raised. Resources are something that are given to ensure that are elections can be held and that the citizenry can participate. Disabled people have been excluded from that which in many ways meant that sites are being selected that are not accessible which excludes people from being able to come vote or there hasn't been positive messages encouraging people to come vote and participate in the elections. This can be said for other groups within countries women may not have been encouraged in the past to participate in elections, and therefore you will see awareness campaigns, and the involvement of the women's community to really help ensure that people will participate. That is a resource issue. As Charlotte is saying it doesn't mean that there's additional fiscal resources that are needed in order to help to advance this issue. What's critically important is that disabled people are seen as a part of the whole, and the government and civil society recognizes that the need to be able to have as many people who wish to be participating in elections, actually be able to vote is what you are really striving for. I would like to share a couple of examples of activities that I have been involved with over the years. I started out working with a nonprofit organization in California called the Center for Independent Living. We put great emphasis on the issue of elections. We did that in a number of ways. We had voter registration materials within the organization so that if people came to the Center they would see voter registration information. That we were able to help people if they needed help to actually be able to fill out the forms. We would have a table in front of our center to encourage people that might not even be participating within our organization to register to vote. What was very important about that was that the people that were running for office in our city really began to see that the voices of disabled people were very important because we actively engaged ‑‑ we were actively engaged during the day of the elections. We volunteered with different political parties. We worked for the various candidates. We got disability to be a part of the agendas for those people running for office. Active participation not only increases a number of disabled people that are voting, but it also allows those people running for office to take more seriously the agenda you are trying to put forward.

Charlotte: I think the issue for me around voting is one of those fundamental rights. I think for persons with disabilities to be able to vote and to be part of that process really links us to society, and to the broader citizenry of the country in which we live, so it's a very serious issue. It's a very important issue and there's a responsibility on the side of those that develop and monitor the voting process, but there is also a responsibility on the side of persons with disabilities to be informed and to be engaged in the process of voting.

Judy: And you know this is a gradual process in all countries. Getting people to recognize that the vote can make a difference in your country, if in fact you are able to meaningfully participate. When I look back over the last couple of decades here in the U.S. I see some very dramatic changes that have occurred. Certainly in the 1960's when I started to vote there was no attention being paid to the inclusion of disabled voters, but we really seen a dramatic change over the last 20 years where the major political parties now in fact led people on their staffs who are working to include disabled people in the electoral process. As a result of that we also see that disabled people are being appointed to positions like Charlotte and myself who have been appointed to positions by the Obama administration. To be able to help ensure that the President's commitment to inclusion of disabled people in our international agenda will in fact become a reality.

Charlotte: I think finally to just say that we should not forget that people with disabilities make up 15% of any given population. So it seems to me for political parties it would be really sensible for them to make sure that they are reaching out to persons with disabilities, but reaching out and ensuring persons with disabilities are involved in a legitimate way and sincerely involved in the process of voting. I think we would both like to wish you well and hope that you have great deliberation over the next three days. We certainly look forward to seeing the results of this very interesting and timely conference.

Judy: I want to thank IFES for the leadership role they have been playing on the inclusion of electoral process in many countries around the world. If we look to the future over the next 5 – 10 years as Convention on the Rights with Persons with Disabilities becomes more seriously implemented in countries, the work that you are doing now and in the future will play a very important role in helping to demonstrate the fact that disabled people want to be active contributory members of our societies. We want to be actively involved in the political process. We want to be actively involved in removing the barriers that have precluded us. We want to be able to work effectively with governments. That government has a responsibility to make sure laws are effectively implemented. I do hope one of the outcomes of the discussions this week will be to look at that issue. I would like to say that considerations should be given to possibly having a DVC with the U.S. Department of Justice which has responsibility for implementing our Help America Vote Act. To be able to share information on the experiences that we have gained in the United States in helping to remove the barriers to enable people with all types of disabilities to actively participate in the electoral process. Have a great conference and we are both sorry we are not with you now.

Charlotte: Thank you.

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