By Sallieu Sesay
56 years old Pa Abu Bangura, who is a blind beggar along Siaka Stevens Street in Freetown, said that as a blind man, he has no knowledge about the 2012 elections. “I do not know about anything that is going on in this election, how and who not to vote for”.
Pa Bangura further stated that during the previous elections, he knew how to vote because as blind people they were taught how to vote.
Article 9 of the UN Convention on Persons with Disability states that “persons with disability have the right to access information and communications on national issues.” The Convention also made provision for disable persons to take part in elections either to vote and to be voted for.
Augustine Kabbah is the Director of the Sierra Leone Union of Disability (SLUDI). He said the National Electoral Commission NEC has failed in ensuring that they are provided the necessary assistance in terms of devices and services that will ensure that people with disability exercise their rights to vote. “The Commission has also failed to design Braille voter education materials and involved sign language interpreters during their sensitization so that the deaf and dumb disable people could understand the voting process and be able to exercise their rights.”
But what has the National Electoral Commission (NEC) being doing to educate disable voters? Albert Massaquoi is the Chief of External Relations who revealed that the Commission is having difficulties to provide voter education materials for the general voting populace. “We are currently in a situation where we are not up to the task of providing voter education or voting materials for people with disability. Even normal materials for the elections, the Commission is finding it difficult to have them now,” he continued.
Henry Sheku, Communication Officer for the Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone maintained that the issue of disable people accessing voting materials is a concern for them. “We are aware of the concerns raised by disable people and we are currently engaged with NEC on this because the Commission will be pleased to see that people with any form of disability are able to exercise their rights to vote,” he asserted.
Massaquoi of NEC disclosed that during the 2007 elections, NEC provided tactile ballots for blind people to be able to vote as a pilot phase but in this year’s elections they are not going to do so. “The Public Elections Act of 2012 does not have any provision for use tactile ballot system which blind people use to vote.”
Part four of the 2011 Disability Act of Sierra Leone Sub Section 29 states that, “The National Electoral Commission shall ensure that during the elections, polling stations are made accessible to persons with disability and shall provide such persons with the necessary assistive devices and services to facilitate the exercise of their right to vote.”
As the disability Act of 2011 calls on NEC to make necessary materials and assistance that will aid people with any form of disability to exercise their right to vote, the2012 election act failed to make provision for this.
But what is the government’s reaction towards this? Steven Gaouja is the Minister of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs. He said that the government through his Ministry views this as an unfortunate situation. “We are sad about this as elections are around the corner and NEC cannot do anything about it though the 2011 Disability Act makes provision for that,” Minister Gaouja said adding that they cannot do anything thing about it now.
When commenting on the multitier elections, Pa Bangura said he was not aware, “I am airing through this interview that I don’t know because I am a blind man always walking along the street.”
As elections are few days away, disable people are encouraged to vote but are not sensitized and the question they are asking is whether or not their votes will be void due to the fact that they don’t know the process and tactile ballots are not provided by NEC this time around.