A CONFERENCE on the political rights of persons with disabilities, especially their right to vote and to contest election brought out the plight of such persons caused by state indifference and social prejudice.

A reference to voters with disabilities is likely to bring to mind the picture of an old man or woman being carried to a polling booth by a younger person or being helped to stamp the ballot paper that is published during each election to demonstrate public interest in the election process and proof of democracy in the country.

But such pictures cannot conceal the disappointment of hundreds of thousands of persons with disabilities with no one to help them exercise their right to vote, assuming that conscientious officials considered them entitled to be enrolled as voters. The bitter reality is that by and large, persons with disabilities are kept out of the electoral process.

A correct way to proceed would be to accept persons with disabilities as essential stakeholders.
This is not to deny that the Election Commission of Pakistan is at least aware of the existence of such persons and their democratic rights. In its five-year strategic plan adopted before the 2013 election, a reference to them was made but what practical steps were taken to enable persons with disabilities to vote is not known outside the ECP.

In its second five-year plan that is currently being implemented, some measures are proposed to enable persons with disabilities to exercise their right to vote, and one hopes that their rights aren’t ignored during the ongoing debate. It is a measure of the neglect these people have been subjected to that they have never been counted.

According to a 2012 survey by an NGO, the number of persons with disabilities in Pakistan was 2.65 million. A regional organisation put the figure at 2.49pc of the population. At the other end, the World Health Organisation says such people constitute 15pc of the global population. There’s no reason to believe that Pakistan can boast of a percentage smaller than the world average. The application of the WHO formula would put the number of persons with disabilities in Pakistan at more than 29m. About 12m of them should be entitled to vote.

That is a sizeable chunk of the electorate. Even if we take the conservative estimate of only 2.65m persons with disabilities the number of voters among them should be around 1.2m. They cannot be ignored.

The confusion about the exact number of persons with disabilities in Pakistan has arisen because the government has not bothered to implement the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities it signed in 2008 and ratified in 2011.

The convention requires Pakistan to collect appropriate information, including statistical and research data, to formulate and implement policies giving effect to it. Disaggregated data about persons with disabilities is needed to determine not only what kind facilities are required to enable persons with different disabilities to enjoy their right to vote but also to realise the entire body of their human rights.

While collecting information about these persons, the government must “comply with legally established safeguards, including legislation on data protection, to ensure confidentiality and respect for the privacy of persons with disabilities”, and also “comply with internationally accepted norms to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms and ethical principles in the collection and use of statistics”.

The emphasis on the right to privacy and dignity of persons with disabilities is not limited to methods of collecting information about them or to their entitlement to political participation. It runs throughout the discussion on their rights to equality in all spheres of life, especially to equal opportunity and access to justice.

Besides, the world is learning to address them in a civilised idiom. Instead of calling them disabled they are described as persons with disabilities. ‘A lady in wheelchair’ has been replaced with ‘a lady who uses a wheelchair’. The use of a proper language while discussing persons with disabilities is important in Pakistan because we have a habit of identifying persons by their disabilities instead of using their names.

The question of the voting rights of persons with disabilities must be examined in the context of the obligations Pakistan has assumed by becoming a party to the UN convention mentioned earlier.

All those working for the rights of persons with disabilities as state functionaries or civil society activists must familiarise themselves with the principles on which the convention is based: respect for inherent dignity, individual autonomy including the freedom to make one’s own choices, and independence of persons; non-discrimination; full, effective participation and inclusion in society; respect for difference and acceptance of persons with disabilities as part of human diversity and humanity; equality of opportunity; accessibility; equality between men and women; and respect for the rights and evolving capacities of children with disabilities.

One way of ‘dealing’ with the problems of voters with disabilities could be to defer discussion on the subject till the Pakistan authorities learn to implement the relevant convention in its entirety, or as a cynic might say until persons without disabilities (including women and non-Muslim citizens) can secure their right to freely exercise their democratic entitlements.

This is the most common way of avoiding obligations under the constitution and international treaties. This approach will not only be a gross injustice to persons with disabilities but also prevent policymakers from acquiring a correct perspective on the urgency of reform.

A correct way to proceed would be to accept persons with disabilities as essential stakeholders and bring them into the political mainstream. There must also be consultations with persons with disabilities on the best means of developing facilities to enable them to not only exercise their right to vote but also participate in all political activities.

Some people have suggested seats in assemblies should be reserved for persons with disabilities. The idea was dropped for two reasons: first, such a step would have amounted to a quantum jump for a society that has traditionally treated persons with disabilities with contempt; and, secondly, this proposal could lead to a demand for reservation of seats for persons without disabilities.

Published in Dawn, September 25th, 2014