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Voters With Disabilities Lament Poor Provisions During 2023 Elections

On 25 February 2023, Nigerians went to the polls to elect a new president and members of the National Assembly. Among the electorate was 48-year-old Olarewaju Oladosu, trailing along with his wheelchair. 

The physically challenged man had set out to exercise his civil rights as an eligible Nigerian. As he approached his polling unit, Mr Oladosu knew it would be challenging to cast his vote due to his spinal cord injury that made him use a wheelchair. 

At Oludokun unit 4, Ede-Osun state, where Mr Oladosu was to cast his vote, there were no provisions for ramps, specialised voting machines and equipment, and audio instructions, thereby creating an unwelcoming environment for Persons With Disabilities (PWDs) to exercise their right to vote.

He finally overcame the obstacle and voted with the assistance of polling officers and improvised ramps provided by concerned citizens.

Mr Oladosu’s encounter highlights how PWDs are sidelined and the difficulties they experience in a bid to participate in democratic activities in Nigeria. 

In the 2023 elections, more than 85,000 PWDs registered to vote, and the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) promised to make provisions for them. 

However, Mr Oladosu said INEC failed to keep their end of the bargain as PWDs found it difficult to cast their votes. 

“I have always believed in the power of democracy and the importance of my voice being heard. But as a man in a wheelchair, I encountered obstacles I never thought I would face when trying to exercise my right to vote”, he said. 

He noted that PWDs are often scared to vote because elections are usually characterised by violence.

He said “many of the places where INEC chose for polling units are far… as you know, there’s no movement from one place to another on election day, so it is difficult for many PWDs to go and exercise their civil rights”, he concluded.

The inaccessibility of polling stations, the lack of proper equipment, the uninformed poll workers, and the absence of accessible ballot information all made me feel excluded and ignored. It’s disheartening to face such barriers in a process that should be inclusive for all citizens. We need change, not just for me but for every person with a disability who wants to participate in shaping our society. Our voices matter, and it’s time to break down the barriers and create an inclusive electoral process that truly reflects the values of democracy.

According to the official data breakdown of PWDs who registered for the 2023 elections, 21,150 persons have albinism, 13,387 have physical impediments and 8,103 have eye impairment.

Others are 1,719 with learning or cognitive disabilities, 6,159 with deafness, 660 with Down syndrome, 2,288 with diminutive stature, and 779 with spinal cord injury. 

The government spent N305 billion to organise the 2023 elections, and N269.45 million was expended on gender and inclusivity. However, voters living with disabilities lament the lack of facilities to aid the voting process. 

Shortage of assistive materials for PWDs 

PWDs have the right to vote and be voted for as stated in the Nigerian Constitution electoral act and article 29 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

Likewise, section 54 (2) of the Electoral Act 2022 states that: “The Commission (INEC) shall take reasonable steps to ensure that persons with disabilities, special needs and vulnerable persons are assisted at the polling place by the provision of suitable means of communication, such as Braille, sizeable embossed print, electronic devices, sign language interpretation, or offsite voting in appropriate cases.”

However, despite these laws, PWDs face formidable challenges that limit their ability to vote freely and independently. 

The lack of accessible polling stations, inadequate provisions for specific disabilities, and a general lack of awareness hindered their participation, resulting in a concerning discrepancy between the number of registered PWD voters and the actual turnout on election day.

Findings by advocacy groups such as  All-rights Foundation and The Albino Foundation Africa (TAF Africa) revealed that only a few per cent of eligible PWD voters could successfully exercise their democratic rights during the election, as some left their polling stations out of frustration with the whole process.

Although it was a sunny day on 18 March, Eniola Oladimeji joined the hundreds of electorate waiting to cast their votes at the Ibereokodo Ward in Abeokuta, Ogun state,

Ms Oladimeji, who is visually impaired, was assisted by a friend to her polling unit. When it was time to cast her vote, she did so with the aid of an INEC ad-hoc staff. 

“They allowed me to vote before other people without joining the queue”, she said in a phone interview. 

While she cast her vote without waiting in line, as a state secretary at the Nigeria Association of the Blind, she observed the absence of assistive materials for PWDs at the station. 

After the election, she said the feedback from members of the association was “not positive or negative, but I will say it’s average”. 

Aisha’s experience 

Aisha, who has a hearing impairment, was eager to vote, hoping for assistance at her polling unit. However, she quickly realised that INEC had yet to mobilise an expert in sign language to aid communication.

“Watching others cast their votes effortlessly only deepened my disappointment”, she started. “The weight of exclusion and invisibility was overwhelming”. 

She explained the reason behind her emotions: “My hearing impairment made it hard to catch conversations around me, and the lack of support was disheartening. I hoped for understanding as I approached the polling booth, but the staff seemed too busy to assist. Lip-reading their instructions was a struggle, and I realised my request for accommodations had been ignored”. 

Despite the difficulties, Aisha remained determined to cast her vote independently. She relied on her knowledge of the candidates and parties she had researched beforehand to make her selections.

As she entered the polling booth, Aisha noticed that the voting instructions were primarily conveyed through verbal announcements and spoken instructions. This posed another hurdle, as she needed help to hear the announcements. 

She approached the electronic voting machine, trying to figure out how to proceed. She attempted to ask nearby voters for assistance, but most were occupied with their voting process. Aisha’s determination led her to complete the voting process independently. 

Finally, Aisha completed the voting process and received her ballot paper. Though relieved, she could not shake off the feeling that her experience could have been more accessible and inclusive. 

The experiences of Mr Oladosu and Aisha are not isolated incidents but represent the challenges faced by PWDs across Nigeria during the 2023 general election.

Many voting centres are ill-equipped to cater to the needs of individuals with disabilities. Observers reported the absence of ramps and limited provisions of assistive technologies such as braille.

Moreover, advocacy groups said inadequate training and sensitisation of electoral officials pose additional barriers to PWDs. Many polling staff are ill-prepared to handle the specific requirements of voters with disabilities, resulting in confusion and frustration at the polling stations. Insufficient knowledge about assistive technologies, lack of sign language interpreters, and limited understanding of the needs of PWDs contribute to the disenfranchisement of this marginalised group.

Jake Epelle, the founder of TAF Africa, said there was a shortage of election materials and inadequate voting aids for PWDs.

He said 87 per cent of voting areas had no magnifying glasses for persons with albinism, while 63 per cent of polling centres had no large font graphic posters for people who are hard of hearing.

A legal practitioner, Habeeb Whyte, said why PWD must infiltrate our political space, there is also a need to speak up. 

“PWD must infiltrate our political space. In their millions, they must advocate for the kind of treatment they desire. If they don’t participate, they will lose out completely.”

Barrister Whyte added: “I feel ill-treatment is one of the major reasons PWD gets discouraged in political activities. We must change the narratives by ensuring that every PWD is always accorded his or her respect.”

However, Aisha is resolute in exercising her civic rights in another election: “Leaving the polling station, I was determined not to let this (her unpalatable experience) deter me. I knew I had to raise my voice, advocate for change, and work towards a more inclusive society where everyone’s voice could be heard.”

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