Challenges facing voters with disabilities

HARARE - For decades, Abraham Mateta has struggled to vote.

Poll workers have told the visually-impaired Mateta that he will have to be assisted by a police officer to cast a ballot.

A law graduate from the University of Zimbabwe, he refuses to countenance another election as a second-class citizen.

He started challenging the numerous obstacles that thousands of voting-age Zimbabweans with disabilities face to cast their ballots in the 2008 elections, just after he completed his Law degree with the UZ a year earlier.

In the 2013 polls, he again protested that many people with disabilities cannot mark paper ballots without assistance, so they rely on cops.

This time, he has lodged an urgent chamber application with the High Court seeking to compel the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) and responsible authorities to consider secrecy of the ballot, especially for visually-impaired eligible voters. 

Zec chairperson Justice Priscillah Chigumba has said the electoral management body would not provide Braille ballot papers for the visually-impaired voters in this year’s polls.

The issue has sparked much debate, with rights lawyers urging the electoral commission to act accordingly.

“In the 2008 elections the blind voted in the presence of a police officer and two other electoral officers so we challenged that and in the 2013 elections a visually-impaired voter was supposed to bring their own assistant but still a presiding officer would be present to witness whether your assistant has done everything ‘correctly’.

“…so if you look at both incidences it violates the right to secret ballot so that is the background of the challenge we have lodged with the court.

“You may want to note that there is an amendment which now says that there is no more need for the presiding officer when you are being assisted but still the fact that you are still assisted limits the secrecy of the whole procedure,” Mateta told the Daily News on Sunday.

Mateta’s cites sections 67 and 56 of the Constitution in his argument, which provides for equal enjoyment of political rights and prohibit discrimination.

“The Constitution ushered in 2013 has a section on what it calls political rights, section 67 provides for all Zimbabweans above the age of 18 the right to vote through a secret ballot and this is precisely the section through which we have taken our case to court,” Mateta said.

“…that section is read with section 56 of the Constitution which prohibits discrimination on grounds that include disability. The fact that Zec and the ministry have not been providing this to the visually- impaired is discriminatory on grounds of disability.

“What we are looking for is a system that uses what we call a template ballot which is more like a guided system which however utilises an ordinary ballot paper so that you will not be using your special kind of paper but there will be a template to guide you where to place your mark as a voter.”

He said it was unacceptable that thousands of blind Zimbabweans will have to be assisted to vote because the country’s voting system does not provide for Braille ballot papers.

The Council for the Blind Zimbabwe says an estimated 125 000 people in Zimbabwe are blind and twice that number are visually impaired.

Because of the absence of Braille ballot papers, the electoral law says blind voters are assisted to vote by officers presiding over polling stations, in the presence of a police officer and agents of contesting political parties.

But opposition parties have in the past accused the ruling Zanu PF of using assisted voters to steal votes. This comes as the number of assisted voters in the country’s previous elections has been contentious, due to vote-rigging fears.

In fact, right from political campaigns to the day of voting, there is absolutely no literature in Braille.

Human rights lawyer Marufu Mandevere emphasised that rights guaranteed by the constitution must be enjoyed by every citizen.

“The right and freedom of citizens to participate in the electoral processes freely without fear or favour is guaranteed by the constitution without discrimination.
The duty to ensure that adequate facilities are provided to every citizen to exercise such rights rest on the government and all its institutions, independent or otherwise,” Mandevere said.

“Further, each organisation, individual and government department has a duty to promote and respect the rights enshrined and protected in the Constitution so Zec has to address the concerns raised by that section of our society to enable them to enjoy their rights and freedoms freely.”

Another legal expert Gift Mtisi said Zec was actually supposed to be educating people about rights granted by the Constitution during electoral processes.

“Zec should be leading in teaching the electorate of rights available, changes available or needed to protect constitutional rights of disabled,” he said.

There are also concerns that polling stations lack all of the accommodations necessary for people with limited mobility to use and want voting booths fitted with ramps and made accessible to people on wheelchairs.

Their concerns also include accessibility of registration centres, availability of assistive services such as sign language interpretation for the deaf and voter education material in braille.

The physically-challenged assert that the lack of attention to this issue sends out a message that the votes of disabled people do not matter.

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