Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Blind South Africans cast their first Braille ballots

From The Independent Online in South Africa:

Blind and other disabled pupils from Filadelphia Secondary School cast their votes for the first time in Soshanguve on April 22.

About 30 pupils from the school made their way to the polling station at the Tshwane South College to make their mark. The vote was especially memorable as blind pupils cast their vote in secret following the introduction of the first Braille ballot paper in this year's elections.

Tshepo Mokgathlane, 20, a first-time voter, said: "I was not sure if the government would ever make such a provision for us. We heard that there was not going to be a Braille ballot paper and that we would have to rely on friends we trust to help us at the polling station. But it really went well."

The Braille ballot papers are available at each polling station countrywide, with one template for the national election and another for provincial elections.

Mokgathlane said he hoped his vote would make a difference, especially in the lives of disabled people.

"We need the government to lead by example and start employing more disabled people, because a lot are still unemployed. It feels good to be a first-time voter, and I hope disabled people will reap the rewards and get more job opportunities like able people," said Mokgathlane.

Partially blind pupil Mthobeli Kobese, 20, also a first-time voter, said he was glad that his fellow pupils were accommodated with the Braille ballot paper, although he used the normal ballot paper.

"It feels good to vote for the first time. It makes me feel more like a South African in a democratic country, as I feel that my vote counts and makes a difference. I feel that disabled people are still isolated and I am hoping that my vote will change that so that we can be fully integrated into society," he said.

Kobese said he wanted to study law after school and hoped his vote would afford him the opportunity to study and be afforded the same opportunities as the able-bodied when he starts looking for a job.

Deaf pupil Khumbulani Mshyiwa said voting for the first time was a pleasant experience, and he was waiting to see changes to show that his vote was worth

The president of the South African Council for the Blind, Rowland Williams, said that at a meeting with the Independent Electoral Commission earlier this month he had tested the ballot paper by casting two mock ballots, and found them easy to use.

"I believe the various actions taken by the IEC demonstrate goodwill and sensitivity to the needs of voters with disabilities, and the IEC is to be congratulated on the introduction of a Braille template," he said.

As the vast majority of blind people do not read Braille, it is important to note that the method used in the past elections remains available to blind voters, where voting is secret with the assistance of a person of their choice over the age of 18, he added.