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The right to political participation and the right to vote are fundamental rights for all citizens. They are at the heart of democracy and citizenship as recalled in Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which we have just celebrated the 69th anniversary.
In Europe, for millions of persons with disabilities, these fundamental rights remain in fact still theoretical. The European Disability Forum stresses that among these people, three groups are even more particularly at risk of exclusion : women with disabilities, people with disabilities living in institutions and people with less visible disabilities such as intellectual and psychosocial disabilities. Although the European Union and all of its 28 Member States have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which endorses the principle of the right to participate in political life and public life (see box), the situation differs greatly from one Member State to another – a situation repeatedly criticized by the UN Committee which monitors the application of the Convention by the EU and its Member States.
On 6 December 2017, the 4th European Parliament of People with Disabilities was held in Brussels. The event, which brought together more than 600 people with disabilities from all over Europe, served as a reminder and warning of discrimination against people with disabilities in exercising their rights as citizens. On this occasion, Harry Roche, Board Member of Inclusion Europe, underlined that in 10 EU Member States, the legislation on legal capacity in force prohibits people with intellectual disabilities from voting. In Germany, 85,000 people suffering from dementia or having an intellectual or psychosocial disability do not have the right to vote. Other Member States impose tests to determine whether a person with disabilities can vote. “Imagine if everyone had to pass a test to determine if they are ’good to vote’. How many voters would pass the test?” stated Harry Roche. Some will argue that this measure is made to ’protect’ people with intellectual disabilities. However, this paternalistic argument cannot be decently accepted: after all, was it not the same argument that was used against women before they obtained the right to vote? Some European countries are more advanced. This is the case in Poland, where people with disabilities participate fairly strongly in the elections thanks to several measures put in place such as the establishment of polling stations specifically designed for persons with disabilities since 2015, the possibility to vote by mail or by proxy, or even the possibility to use braille adapters. E-voting is also considered. However, all these developments are now targeted by a new electoral law presented by the majority at the government under the guise of avoiding potential fraud, as denounced by Jan Libicki, Member of the Polish Senate and President of the Polish parliamentary group of people with disabilities.
The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) is preparing a report on the respect of the rights of people with disabilities in the last European elections. “In no one Member State persons with disabilities have full and unlimited right to vote” denounced EESC rapporteur Krzysztof Pater. The preliminary results of the report, that is expected to be adopted in early 2018, indicate that in 11 EU Member States certain groups of persons with disabilities are automatically excluded from political participation. In 7 other Member States, the Court has the right to deprive a person with disabilities of his/her right to vote on the basis of an individual analysis. In 10 Member States only, withdrawing the right to vote from a disabled person with disabilities is impossible. However, while in these countries their right to vote is legally enshrined, in practice electoral procedures prevent persons with disabilities from participating in the elections: lack of information during the campaign and the voting day in a format that is both accessible and understandable (braille, easy-to-read, etc.), difficulty to access the polling stations, restriction regarding the assistance that persons with disabilities need, impossibility for persons with disabilities to leave the institution or residence where they live, etc. Yet technical solutions exist to allow everyone to participate in elections. If there is anything is missing now, it is the political will.
While we are less than two years away from the next European elections, AEDH believes it is essential that the European institutions and the Member States mobilise now and adapt their legislation and procedures so that any European citizen, without exception and regardless of their disabilities, can exercise their right to participate in political life, in accordance with the European Charter of Fundamental Rights.
United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
Article 29 – Participation in political and public life
States Parties shall guarantee to persons with disabilities political rights and the opportunity to enjoy them on an equal basis with others, and shall undertake to:
(a) Ensure that persons with disabilities can effectively and fully participate in political and public life on an equal basis with others, directly or through freely chosen representatives, including the right and opportunity for persons with disabilities to vote and be elected, inter alia, by:
i. Ensuring that voting procedures, facilities and materials are appropriate, accessible and easy to understand and use;
ii. Protecting the right of persons with disabilities to vote by secret ballot in elections and public referendums without intimidation, and to stand for elections, to effectively hold office and perform all public functions at all levels of government, facilitating the use of assistive and new technologies where appropriate;
iii. Guaranteeing the free expression of the will of persons with disabilities as electors and to this end, where necessary, at their request, allowing assistance in voting by a person of their own choice;
(b) Promote actively an environment in which persons with disabilities can effectively and fully participate in the conduct of public affairs, without discrimination and on an equal basis with others, and encourage their participation in public affairs, including:
i. Participation in non-governmental organizations and associations concerned with the public and political life of the country, and in the activities and administration of political parties;
ii. Forming and joining organizations of persons with disabilities to represent persons with disabilities at international, national, regional and local levels.
 To watch the whole debate on the right to vote held at the 4th European Parliament of Persons with Disabilities: http://web.ep.streamovations.be/index.php/event/stream/171206-1000-special-disabilities-opening