New research findings published by the EU Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) suggest that full political participation of persons with disabilities can be achieved if an adequate legal and policy framework is in place, which enables citizens with disabilities equal access to all aspects of the political process, such as voting in elections, being members of political parties and engaging with political activities.
Nevertheless, the promotion and implementation of this right is patchy across EU Member States and further efforts are required to ensure that information and political processes are accessible.
The FRA report entitled The right to political participation for persons with disabilities: human rights indicators outlines the current barriers and obstacles which must be overcome before the political participation of persons with disabilities is fully realised in compliance with the requirements of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).
The main challenges to address are legal. Obstacles such as restrictions on the right to vote, gaps between law and policy and a lack of engagement with persons with disabilities in policy development are major concerns. There is also an imbalance amongst persons with disabilities: barriers to participation are more significant for those with a certain type of disability or based on the severity of their impairment.
The report reminds Member States that addressing these barriers and obstacles “as soon as possible is essential to increasing the legitimacy of public institutions and creating more equitable and inclusive societies in which all members can participate fully.”
To facilitate this process, FRA has developed a number of human rights indicators that can help identify the extent to which persons with disabilities participate in political activities across the EU. Indicators have been developed for following thematic areas: lifting legal and administrative barriers to political participation; raising awareness of the right to political participation of persons with disabilities; making voting procedures, facilities and election materials more accessible; and increasing opportunities for participation in political life.
The right to political participation of persons with disabilities in the UK
Using the FRA human rights indicators, it is possible to assess the extent to which the UK has adhered to its obligations under the CRPD as well as other significant human rights instruments such as the European Convention on Human Rights, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and other EU Treaties.
- Lifting legal and administrative barriers
In the UK, all eligible citizens, including persons living in long-term institutions, have the right to vote and can use alternative methods of voting, including proxy voting and postal voting. However, access to voting procedures is hindered by inaccessible administrative procedures such as requesting support or assistance. In addition, there is a lack of information on how to submit a complaint.
- Making political participation more accessible
Accessibility refers not only to facilities but also to voting procedures and election materials.
In the UK, accessibility to public buildings is assured by mandatory accessibility standards for the construction and alteration of national and local authority buildings. Despite this, in 2013, an Equality Indicators survey, conducted by the Office of Disability Issues, suggested that 32% of the disabled population reported having difficulties accessing goods and services, including access to Local Authority and Central Government services.
Information on electoral processes and election-related media also remain largely inaccessible to persons with disabilities. In the UK, only public media providers are obliged to ensure that their broadcasts are accessible to persons with disabilities. The BBC and Channel 4 both have a public sector equality duty to ensure that their broadcast services are accessible to persons with disabilities. However, this means that there are no legal accessibility standards for providers of internet and web-based services.
Notably, the research findings suggest that a disparity exists between information that is provided according to the type of disability. For example, there has been an increase in the availability of subtitling for people with hearing impairments; however, there is less availability of audio description for those with visual impairments. This gap creates an inequity in the access to information.
Scope, in their 2010 report Polls Apart, outlined their findings following a survey of polling stations from the 2010 General Election. The main barriers encountered by persons with disabilities included:
a) The absence of a tactile voting device to help visually impaired voters vote independently;
b) The absence of a large print version of the ballot paper;
c) The absence of level access into the polling station, including an adequate ramp when required.
d) The absence of a low level polling booth
e) The absence of registration documents and a polling card that were easy to read and understand.
- Increasing rights awareness
Raising awareness is essential to overcome the legal and administrative barriers stated above, as well as guaranteeing access of persons with disabilities to the electoral process by providing information.
Increasing awareness of the right to political participation of persons with disabilities can be achieved using a two pronged approach: i) by ensuring that public officials are well informed on disability equality and the duty to provide reasonable accommodation and ii) by ensuring that persons with disabilities are aware of their right to vote and participate in political activities.
In the UK, training of election authorities and officials is not a legal requirement, but there is nevertheless the provision of training materials and instructions on how to ensure non-discrimination on the ground of disability and accessibility in voting procedures.
The role of disabled persons’ organisations (DPOs) is key to ensuring that persons with disabilities are aware of their right to political participation, therefore it is essential that they are consulted when law and policies are being developed.
Mechanisms have been established, in the UK, to ensure that systematic consultation with DPOs occurs. This includes guidance issued to government departments about the need to involve disabled persons in the development of government policy and strategy.
- Increasing opportunities for participation in political life
It is also necessary to increase the capacity of political parties and media organisations to make information and campaign materials more accessible. In the UK, none of the main political parties have provided an alternative version to their European Manifesto 2014. In the 2010 general election, of the main political parties, only the Green Party and the Liberal Democrats produced alternative formats of their General Election Manifestos (including Easy Read, Audio and Large Print). Labour and the Conservatives produced a Manifesto available for download, but no links to alternative formats.
Overall, the FRA findings suggest that to improve the political participation of persons with disabilities, it is necessary to provide more accessible information and processes, including support and reasonable adjustments.
Amy Weatherburn is Research Assistant at the University of Nottingham Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC). HRLC is a member of FRANET, the FRA’s multidisciplinary research network. As the UK contractor, HRLC, upon request, provides relevant legal and social research data to the FRA on fundamental rights issues, to facilitate the Agency’s comparative analyses