Fadi al-Sayegh is a politically active man in his 40s. He is also a quadriplegic, paralyzed in both arms and both legs, and when it comes to voting in national or municipal elections – arguably the most sacred expression of a person’s democratic rights – what should be a simple exercise becomes a test of endurance and will. Most polling stations, he says, are neither on the ground floor nor equipped with elevators, and when he votes, he must take his friends to assist him. “Each small stair is like a big wall,” he said angrily. Fadi is just one of thousands of Lebanese voters who, despite the efforts of NGOs and other groups, will face difficulties casting a ballot on June 7.
On May 13, 2009, the Ministry of Interior – in line with Law 220/2000, which outlines the rights of disabled people – issued a decree to ensure “accessibility for people with special needs during the voting process.” More specifically, it announced criteria that polling stations should meet in order to accommodate those with disabilities. In addition, according to the ministry, the municipality that best implements accessibility requirements will be honored following the elections.
This decree is the consequence of “Our Rights”, a campaign for the disabled started in 2005 under the slogan, “Voting with dignity and independence” and led by a coalition of organizations, including the Lebanese Physically Handicapped Union (LPHU); the Youth Association for the Blind (YAB); Our Voice, an organization for people with mental and learning disabilities; and the Parents Association for the Deaf.
However, following the decree, the LPHU, sponsored by the International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES), conducted a study mapping 1,741 polling stations all over Lebanon and assessed them according to the ministry’s six accessibility criteria. Polling stations must have parking lots, entrances, corridors, wheelchair ramps, elevators, toilets and voting halls big enough to install curtained booths to ensure privacy. The results, revealed at a press conference last Friday, showed that only six polling stations – less that half of 1% -- out of 1,741 satisfied all six accessibility criteria.
These charts show the results of the study on the accessibility of 1,741 polling stations in Lebanon. The pie chart shows that six polling stations meet all six criteria, seven meet five, 21 meet four, 212 meet three, 780 met two, 556 met one and 159 met none of the criteria. (LPHU)
Given the findings of the polling station survey, the Interior Ministry’s decree may be a case of too little, too late, but Silvana Lakkis, chairperson of LPHU, sees the glass half-full. “Even if this time, we will not be able to vote as we want, [but] we have paved the way for later, especially for next year, when we will have the municipal elections,” she told NOW.
In a few weeks’ time, the LPHU will hold a press conference in the Lebanese Press Syndicate building in Ain al-Tineh to distribute press kits to journalists to draw their attention to a culture they say reinforces negative attitudes toward people with disabilities, and to highlight the new laws affecting them.
In addition to advocacy campaigns, the LPHU has also been conducting training workshops for local election monitors and the media after the success of one held in 2005, which, according to Lakkis, helped the media “monitor and record” more accurately how easily a blind person can get assistance when voting and whether those in wheelchairs have proper access facilities. “In 2005… we noticed how [the media] catches these stories in their coverage,” she said.
But despite increased coverage of their predicament, the disabled still argue that they are marginalized when it comes to exercising their political rights. Anecdotes abound on how the system is useless and, at times, corrupt. Lakkis once heard of a person in a wheelchair who was carried to the fourth floor to vote but was unable to get back down again. “It happened, and there are many similar cases,” she said. “This is humiliating.” The upshot is that many disabled voters either feel they are a burden or fear public humiliation and simply stay at home.
And then there is the exploitation. The LPHU has received phone calls from politicians seeking votes from the disabled in exchange for “financial help”. The votes of blind people are also prone to being bought or abused, as there are no ballot papers in brail. Those offering such inducements are told that LPHU members will vote for candidates who will promote human rights and development for all.
The bottom line is that if schools – often the venue for polling stations during elections – were built with the disabled in mind, there would be no need to worry about accessibility. Attending school with other non-disabled children is, according to Law 220/2000 and other international human rights conventions signed by Lebanon, a fundamental right for any handicapped child, who would be raised as an active and accepted member of society, instead of being stereotyped, underprivileged and shunned. As Lakkis puts it, “The first line of the national anthem is, ‘All of us are for the country.’ If we switch this around, it is, ‘The country is for all of us.’”
Note: An interactive map of 1,741 polling stations will be available at www.lphu.com very soon.