By Senarath Attanayake –
Creating Equality In The Electoral Process – Steps Taken By The Election Commissioner In Sri Lanka
“Elections provide a unique opportunity to increase participation and change public perceptions about the abilities of persons with disabilities. As a result, persons with disabilities can have a stronger political voice and be increasingly recognized as equal citizens. This sets the stage for ongoing participation in their communities and social and economic integration.” – International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES)
The Department of Elections declare their vision to be the protection of democracy of the country through conducting free and fair elections and referenda. A free and fair election is primarily one that provides opportunities for every eligible citizen to exercise his or her vote on an equal basis with others. Every single voter has the right to exercise the vote that is his or her democratic entitlement.
Persons with Disabilities are often deprived of this right, not due to their disability, but due to the barriers they face in the electoral process. Lack of access to polling stations, non-inclusive electoral registration systems, unavailability of data and lack of knowledge on the importance of being a part of the electoral process are some of the barriers faced by persons living with disabilities. Not only that, candidates have been unable to recognise the votes of persons with disabilities and often neglect their concerns in their election campaigns.
In this background, the recent steps taken by the Commissioner of Elections is one giant leap forward in ensuring the electoral rights of persons with disabilities. What is most important is that the current Commissioner has been able to divert successfully from the popular ‘charitable’ approach towards disability practised by many citizens as well as public officials in the country. The initiatives taken by the commissioner are admirable in that he strives to ensure that every eligible citizen receives the same opportunity to take part in the elections on an equal basis.
The steps taken by the Department of Elections include the provision of transport facilities for persons with disabilities to reach the polling station, ensuring that polling stations are located at the most accessible venue available in the designated centre and making arrangements to transport persons with disabilities from the entrance to the polling booth in instances where such locations are not available. In addition, the Department and the Commissioner himself is making sure to highlight the issue of disability in their media statements. Mr Mahinda Deshapriya thus becomes the first ever election commissioner of Sri Lanka to take steps to ensure equal participation of persons with disabilities at the electoral process. This is indeed a historic step for the Department as well as a great achievement for the persons with disabilities in Sri Lanka.
The Commissioner sets an example to all the other public officials in the country on creating inclusion. This proves that mainstreaming of disability is not an impossibility as long as the institutions and individuals have a sensitivity towards the issue. What is needed is the willingness to recognise abilities of all persons with our without disabilities and to ensure that everyone, regardless of these abilities are provided opportunities of participation.