RANGOON — Burma’s Union Election Commission (UEC) has vowed to implement new measures to enhance voting rights for the disabled during the country’s upcoming general election, to be held in November.
Following a meeting with disabled rights advocates, lawmakers and government officials in Naypyidaw on Wednesday, the UEC agreed to a number of polling practices meant to improve fairness and access for the blind, deaf, mentally and physically disabled.
Nay Lin Soe, founder and director of the disability support group Myanmar Independent Living Initiative (MILI), said that while the commission has accepted some suggestions made by the disabled community, some of the new policies will only be implemented in districts with high disabled populations, and a few other recommendations were turned down.
One major achievement, he said, was an agreement to use Braille templates that can be placed on ballots to guide blind voters, which can be removed and reused.
“We urged them to use ballot paper with Braille lettering, but it was too costly and less confidential, so we discussed using templates” Nay Lin Soe said. “The chairman of the commission himself willingly agreed to it.”
Templates will be used in areas where there are schools for the blind or otherwise high populations of visually impaired persons. In those areas, the UEC also agreed to allow an adult to accompany blind voters who cannot read Braille into the voting booth.
The commission turned down a proposal to install televisions demonstrating voting procedures for deaf in polling stations, but did agree to allow provide information about candidates to disabled voters 10 days in advance of elections. The UEC also decided against displaying photographs of candidates on the ballots.
MILI and other disability groups represented at the meeting suggested a redesign of voting booths to make them simpler and easier to use for a wider range of people living with or without disabilities. The UEC decided to keep the design used during elections in 2010 and 2012, but will “discuss with commission members to be able to have [redesigned booths] in some places.”
Most of the new practices are geared toward assistance for the visual and hearing impaired, though advocates also requested clearer policies regarding the rights of people with mental disorders. Citizens who have been diagnosed with autism will be allowed to vote, while those with intellectual disabilities will not, but there are currently no protections in place to avoid discrimination by polling workers who may not see the distinction.
Nay Lin Soe said this year’s elections are likely to be far more fair for the disabled, as previous polls did not even account for disability in their by-laws. In many cases, voters with disability were forced to vote in advance instead of at polling stations, while some who came to the voting booth were antagonized by poll workers.
According to Burma’s 2014 census, 4.6 percent of the country’s population of 51.5 million people live with some type of disability.