Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Enabling disabled voters in Indonesia

From The Jakarta Globe:

After decades of being denied the right to vote, much less run for office, Indonesians with disabilities are gradually making milestones in ensuring that everyone gets a say in the way the country is run, even if it’s in braille, sign language or voiced from a wheelchair.

Back in the days of Suharto, Indonesia’s second and longest-ruling president, people with disabilities were barred from running for parliament by three seemingly innocuous articles in the election law.

One required that candidates be of sound mental and physical health, which was narrowly interpreted as excluding people with disabilities. The second article insisted candidates be able to read and write Roman letters, ruling out blind people, even if they were literate in braille. The last article demanded a prospective legislator be able to speak and write in Indonesian, a clause that barred people with speech impairments from the House.

Maulani Rotinsulu of the Indonesian Association of Women With Disabilities (HWPCI) said the prevailing view that disabled people posed a diminished capacity was at the root of discriminatory treatment.

“This in turn limits their opportunities and undermines [disabled people’s] confidence and capabilities,” she said.

“If our disability is considered an illness, when are we going to be considered eligible, since we’re never going to recover from it?” asked Otje Soedioto, a blind journalist whose spurned candidacy was backed by no less than the then-ruling party, Golkar.

The situation is no better for disabled voters, whose problems can begin with voter registration. Many parents are still inclined to conceal disabilities and often don’t register their disabled children for birth certificates. This excludes persons with disabilities from the family information sheet necessary for applying for legal documents.

But even when they are on the list, voting is still no easy matter. During the Suharto era, some sporadic initiatives were made for blind voters, providing cardboard folders with holes that corresponded with the positions of the party symbols. An attendant then guided the voter’s hand across the folder to show which party each slot represented, leaving the voter left to mark their choice by punching a hole in the prescribed slot.

“But it was easier then,” said Adi Gunawan from the Indonesian Blind Union (Pertuni). “There were only three parties to choose from.”

Following the reform movement of the late 1990s, several organizations advocating for the rights of people with disabilities sought to change the situation by collaborating with the Center for Election Access for Citizens with Disabilities (PPUA Penca) in 2001.

The united lobbying front managed to make some changes in the 2004 election law. Though the three problematic articles remained unchanged, people with disabilities were allowed to run for the parliament. Adi, for instance, was listed as a National Mandate Party (PAN) candidate for East Jakarta.

“I think political parties welcome us,” Adi said. “Some people think it’s good for empowering the disabled, though our community might be viewed as less [politically] strategic than women and young people. Still, some are of the opinion that political parties nominate us to exploit our disabilities.”

The voters, on the other hand, were still stumped by logistical issues. “Most campaign ads and public service announcements about the election were broadcast on radio and TV, making it hard for the deaf to get the information they needed,” Adi said.

In addition, most polling stations are set up in school buildings with staircases or in open grassy fields that are not easily navigable by paraplegics in wheelchairs.

“Voting chambers are too narrow to accommodate wheelchair users,” Adi added, “and the ballot box is often placed out of reach on a high table.”

For the blind, selecting from among the 24 parties vying for seats in the House of Representatives on ballots the size of newspaper pages proved challenging.

Furthermore, though they are legally permitted to appoint an assistant to help them vote, concerns about the neutrality of the chosen helper prompted party representatives to insist that the marked ballot paper be displayed to the witnesses at the polling station. “This compromised voter confidentiality,” Adi said.

Though braille-printed frames for ballot papers had been provided by PPUA Penca in five pilot provinces for the 2004 presidential election, they were not distributed and remained at the sub-district government warehouse, “because they were not issued by the General Election Committee [KPU] and thus not considered election materials,” Adi said.

Five years of further lobbying has had mixed results. For the 2009 election, an explanation was appended to the election law stating that the three previously obstructive prerequisites should not hinder persons with disabilities from running for parliament. Furthermore, some parties had issued campaign materials in braille and the KPU made a point of ensuring that a template for the blind be provided at each polling station.

“Although due to time pressures, not enough explanation was given,” Adi said.

Moreover, the KPU changed the method of casting votes from punching a hole on the chosen party symbol to drawing a checkmark.

“This proved tricky for the blind, because how do we know we’ve marked the ballot properly?” Adi asked.

With 73 regional polls to be held this year — as well as the upcoming national and presidential elections in 2014 — there is a sense of urgency to address the needs and interests of the disabled community.

“The focus groups at the 2009 election were women and youth,” Adi said. “For 2014, we hope the KPU will include images of blind people or wheelchair users casting their votes in public service ads to encourage disabled people to exercise their political rights.”

Despite the challenges, there have been some success stories. Several disabled candidates won regional legislative seats in 2009 in West Sulawesi and Yogyakarta. Still, Adi was not optimistic that all the necessary changes would take place.

“The problems faced by the disabled community cut across the spectrum, from economic affairs to education,” he said.

“We have laws about public structure accessibility that need to be enforced,” he continued. “There are [isolated] cases in which disabled people are prohibited from flying without signing a form stating their condition is pre-existing and waiving all claims against the airline should anything happen. We have a labor rule stipulating that for every 100 employees a company hires, one should be a person with a disability, and yet many educated blind people have no choice but to work as masseuses or busk on the street. Many problems remain.”

“But in the end, it all depends on the disabled persons,” Adi said. “It depends on how they are going to advocate for themselves.”