People with disabilities in Nigeria have especially tough lives. Many of them find it difficult to get good jobs, they suffer from discrimination and stigma and can’t access many public places or facilities like banks, transport buses, hospitals or supermarkets.
Unfortunately, this exclusion spreads into civic activities like voting as many visually impaired Nigerians are unable to effectively exercise their civic rights.
What guidelines has the law made for blind and visually impaired voters?
According to Section 56 of the Electoral Amendment Act 2015: “ (1) A voter who is blind or is otherwise unable to distinguish symbols or who suffers from any other physical disability may be accompanied into the polling unit by a person chosen by him and that person shall, after informing the Presiding Officer of the disability, be permitted to accompany the voter into the voting compartment and assist the voter to make his mark in accordance with the procedure prescribed by the Commission.”
Simply put, visually challenged people are allowed to bring someone to help them. But, this undermines the entire voting process because they could be cheated or influenced into voting for candidates they do not support.
However, there is another provision of Section 56 of the Electoral Amendment Act 2015 which states: “The Commission may take reasonable steps to ensure voters with disabilities are assisted at the polling place by provision of suitable means of communication, such as Braille, large embossed print or electronic devices or sign language interpretation, or off-site voting in appropriate cases”.
So, has INEC taken any steps to make the voting process more inclusive?
On May 3, 2018, during a campus outreach at the University of Abuja, the Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Mahmood Yakubu, announced that measures had been taken to ensure visually impaired people could vote unaided. These measures were:
- Braille Ballot Guide: This envelope-like leaflet, would help voters identify the names of all the political parties immediately a ballot paper is inserted into it.
- Magnifying glasses for persons with albinism.
Was this effective in the 2019 elections?
When these measures were put in place for the 2019 elections, many visually impaired people were happy at the long-awaited inclusiveness and at the chance to have 100 percent confidence in their votes.
Unfortunately, their hopes were dashed as many of them reported that the INEC officials themselves were confused when they asked for a ballot guide. Some officials said they didn’t know what a ballot guide was while others said it wasn’t available in the polling unit.
It’s almost like the talk of inclusiveness had been a fool’s dream. So, once again, voters with visual impairment may rely on the help of others to cast their vote.
Consequences of the lack of inclusivity
One of the issues facing our electoral system today is voter apathy and this time, INEC might be the one encouraging this. Many visually impaired voters are getting tired of a system that isn’t considerate of their situation. As a result, many of them have sworn not to vote again till a lasting solution is found.
Political candidates are at a disadvantage
Statistics show that there are about 7 million visually impaired people in Nigeria today with a significant fraction being adults of voting age whose votes can be the determining factor to push a candidate to victory. However, if the right medium isn’t provided for them to carry out their civic duty, we shouldn’t really call the elections a free and fair one.
Although INEC has promised again that people with disabilities would be able to vote in the upcoming general elections without issues it’s difficult to take their word for it after the 2019 disappointment.