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Lost Voice: Jordanian Voting Centers Discriminate Against Persons with Disabilities

6 October 2021 , | Salam Freihat

Young Hala Mahfouz, in her twenties, left her house full of excitement; on her way to participate in the first legislative elections that she is eligible to participate in, only to be met with disappointment as soon as she reaches the voting center. Hala, a person living with disability, was surprised to find that the voting center was on the third floor of the building with no way for her to reach it. She says “I asked them to bring the polling box down, but they refused and said that it was easier for them to carry me in my wheelchair up. I refused, and considered it offensive and discriminating against me as a person with disability”.

Mahfouz adds, ”Before the decentralized provincial council elections in 2017, members of the Independent Electoral Council (IEC) in the Jordanian university visited us and confirmed that the centers would be equipped and prepared to welcome us and encouraged us to participate. Sadly, most of the centers were located in upper floors, despite having equipped entrances, which we call incomplete preparedness, that does not achieve the final goal”.

Hala Mahfouz is not alone in refusing to exercise her right to vote, in protest of her inability to reach the voting center in a dignified manner. Former parliamentary candidate Mousa Al Dresdawy (48 years), from Al Aqaba, refused to vote in the 2016 parliamentary elections because the voting center was on an upper floor that he was unable to reach without help. He said that he had tried to communicate with those responsible in the ‘Higher Council for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities’, and the IEC, to no avail. He confirms that the same obstacles that he and other persons with disabilities had faced in the 2016 elections are present in the 2020 elections.

During Al Dresdawy’s election campaign, he conducted visits around voting centers in Al Aqaba. He says, “ I visited the two biggest centers used by persons with disabilities, which were unfortunately unequipped to accommodate them. I could not even go into one of the centers as there was no ramp leading to the entrance”. He continues, “I reached out to the IEC and informed them of the situation, and they promised to provide a ramp. The elections were over before the ramp was made available”.

Model Preparation

The IEC had signed a memorandum of understanding and a joint cooperation protocol with the Higher Council for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (HCD) in August 2020. With the aim of increasing the voter base among persons with disabilities in the electoral process, and guaranteeing their rights to run as candidates and to vote. The memorandum included the preparation of 23 model centers, and the partial preparation of 175 centers.

Ra’fat Al Zaitawi , media spokesperson for the HCD, says that the IEC did not specify the model centers, and that the distribution strategy for these centers was not clear. Saying that model preparation includes : infrastructure, wheelchair compliant corridors, specially adapted bathrooms, signs with big fonts for the visually impaired, Braille signs for the blind, and elevators. As for the polling box, this should not be higher than 76 cm, so that the person can independently cast their vote, in addition to their being a cubicle specially prepared for persons with disabilities.

Al Zaitawi ads, “As for those who are unable to write, either due to visual impairments or upper limb amputees, or those with hearing disabilities, they should also have the right to bring a caretaker with them to the polling station”.

Al Zaitawi goes on to note that many of the complaints received during the 2020 elections through their monitoring partners, such as ‘Al Hayat Center – Rased’ and the ‘National Human Rights Council’, were related to “persons with disabilities being carried to upper floors, being registered in unequipped centers, and the refusal of some of the sorting committees to work with the IEC on the idea of persons with disabilities working as election monitors, and limiting their movements during monitoring”. He continues, “All of these practices can be considered as discriminatory, and a violation of the dignity and privacy of persons with disabilities. Disabled persons should be able to independently enter the voting center and go through the process by themselves, but when the center is not properly equipped, then this would be considered a violation of their rights”.

A survey of 20 persons with disabilities revealed that 15 participants, who had voted in former municipal or parliamentary elections, agreed with the people questioned in this report. 52% of them agreed that the information provided by the IEC and other concerned bodies regarding their registration and participation in the voting centers were insufficient.

Low Participation

The Persons with Disabilities Rights law number 20 of the year 2017, guarantees their full rights without any prejudices. As Article (5a) states, “It is impermissible to deprive any person of his/her rights or freedoms or to restrict enjoyment or practice thereof. It is also impermissible to restrict any person’s freedom to make decisions on the basis of, or because of, disability.”

And the United Nations agreement for the rights of Persons with Disabilities, which Jordan ratified in 2006, guarantees their right to participate in political and public life. As it states the need to “Ensuring that voting procedures, facilities and materials are appropriate, accessible and easy to understand and use”.

The official spokesperson for the IEC Jihad Al Moumini confirms that, “Despite the availability of specially prepared centers in the 2016 elections, the percentage of participation of Persons with disabilities was significantly low. Which led the IEC to lower the number of prepared centers for the 2020 election from 23 to 11 centers throughout the Kingdom”. However, Al Moumini could not provide us with a precise number for Persons with disabilities who exercised their right to vote.

He goes on to say, “According to the agreement between the IEC and the HCD, persons with disabilities are supposed to go to the civil registration office to register themselves as disabled. The office would then list their names in the appropriate tables and voting centers”.

The number of persons with disabilities eligible to vote in 2020 reached around seven hundred thousand voters according to the IEC, out of four million and six hundred and forty thousand overall voters.

From Another Planet

Journalist and Persons with Disabilities activist, Rami Zalloum, attributes the absence of adequate facilities in voting centers to shortsightedness and lack of awareness of those responsible, and not to discrimination against this specific group. Sarcastically he says, “Maybe they think persons with disabilities come from their own world or from another planet.”

Zalloum then clarifies that the lack of participation of persons with disabilities in the elections was due to the difficulties they face in reaching the voting centers. “There are a number of people who refused to go because there are no transportation services, most of them take taxis which are considered expensive for them.”

Muhammed Hawamide’s experience while trying to reach the voting centers in Al Jarsh governorate was similar to that of Mahfouz and Al Dresdawy, as he confirms that the facilities in the 2020 elections were not better than what they were in 2016.

Hawamide says, “In the 2016 elections, the candidates’ volunteers rushed to help me climb the stairs to the second floor when I reached the voting center in Al Jarsh. However, after I voted I waited for 30 minutes looking for someone to help me climb down, until I asked the police officers present for help.” He goes on, “In 2020 the voting center was also on the second floor, and there was no one around to help me so I waited until the head of the voting committee and another member came and helped me.”

Hawamide also brings to attention that the exterior ramp installed to help the movement of persons with disabilities was too steep to climb on without help, also mentioning that members of the security forces did not allow vehicles to drive up to the voting center. He says, “Maybe I can roll myself on my wheelchair, but how can a senior citizen cross a distance of more than 400 meters to reach the voting center?!”

Salam Fraihat
Salam Fraihat is an independent journalist. Her coverage focuses on human rights issues and she produces investigative reports for Radio and journalism. Fraihat earned her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Al Yarmouk University.