Lebanon elections: Disabled citizens demand their right to vote with dignity

Demonstration [Hussein Beydoun/Al-Araby Al-Jadeed]
8 min read
12 May, 2022
Lebanon's disabled citizens are holding fast to their demand for the right to vote with dignity at the elections on 15 May, despite the government's failure so far to make good on promises they have made repeatedly in the past.

Welcome to The New Arab’s coverage of Lebanon’s General Election 2022 held on May 15, 2022. Follow live updates, results, analyses, and opinion in our special hub here.

The count down to the Lebanese parliamentary elections has started, due to be held on 15 May. However, when it comes to disabled access to polling stations, multiple obstacles remain unresolved, which could prevent disabled people from exercising their right to vote independently and with dignity.

While it is hoped that the relevant bodies will act fast to amend these issues and make good on promises they have made, these same promises have been repeated at every election but actual change has yet to materialise.

Disabled voters have suffered humiliating experiences at every election, says Sylvana Lakkis, president of the Lebanese Union for People with Physical Disabilities (LUPD) but insists that the 2018 elections were the worst ever for disabled people, who were "treated like crates of potatoes."

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At that election, members of the Lebanese Civil Defence were instructed to carry disabled voters up multiple flights of stairs, in their wheelchairs, to cast their ballots due to the lack of disabled access in many buildings where polling stations were.

"Aside from the psychological damage due to the humiliation of being treated like this […] some members of the traditional parties exploited the vulnerable situation of disabled voters, helping them cast their votes [after advising them on who to vote for], then left and abandoned them on the upper floors."

"The count down to the Lebanese parliamentary elections has started, due to be held on 15 May. However, when it comes to disabled access to polling stations, multiple obstacles remain unresolved"

Stalled proposals

Lakkis says the LUPD had made several suggestions to the Lebanese Ministry of the Interior, such as the establishment of a mega centre built to be fully accessible to disabled voters but the suggestion wasn't approved for this electoral cycle. Likewise, the union requested the right to pre-register disabled people and the elderly [to vote].

"That doesn't mean we would vote alone, as we are for integration and reject the establishment of special centres just for us. What we want, specifically, is that disability-friendly polling stations are provided in every administrative district. However it's clear this proposal needs a law – though it could have been passed through fast tracked legislation, if the will was there."

She adds: "LUPD also carried out a field survey in every district which showed that 40% of government schools contain ground floors, courtyards and playgrounds, and we suggested moving the polling stations to them. The interior ministry agreed and tasked district officials with identifying suitable places. But this needs to be enacted fast, because time is running out […].

Demonstration in Beirut for disabled access in polling stations [Hussein Beydoun/Al-Araby Al-Jadeed]
'I want to vote from the ground floor' reads the placard of a protester demanding that polling stations be accessible for those with disabilities at the upcoming Lebanese elections on 15 May [Hussein Beydoun/Al-Araby Al-Jadeed]

"The Ministry of Education also has a role when it comes to checking the schools to make sure that the ground floors are equipped and lifts are operating, and that they can be open throughout the day. If this does happen, it will set a precedent that has been denied to an entire generation since the Law on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was issued in 2000. Bear in mind there are 80,000 voters who hold disability cards."

Lakkis also touches on the violated rights of those with visual, intellectual, or hearing impairments when it comes to having access to clear information and the voting process: "They also have the right to vote independently and with dignity, and the law is clear on this, as it confirms their right to have recourse to the type of assistance they wish for. The state needs to enforce this; make sure sign language and braille options exist, and simplify the language used for those groups who represent nearly 15% of Lebanon's population, and grant them the right to vote and to access the information they need to do so."

 "The state needs to enforce this; make sure sign language and braille options exist, and simplify the language used for those groups who represent nearly 15% of Lebanon's population"

Lakkis hopes that civil society candidates will include disabled people's rights in their electoral platforms, "because we are part of society, and our rights cannot be separated off. We are desperately concerned for our country. The watering down of any human right mustn't be allowed. We also insist elections go ahead on the date planned, because the chaos we are living and this state of collapse mean that now more than ever this vote needs to reflect the choice of the people and their will."

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A question of will

Ziyad Baroud, ex-minister of the interior says to Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab's Arabic-language sister publication, that this issue is longstanding and unfortunate, but solving it would be simple if the will were there and it was given priority, as most polling stations are in public buildings especially schools and municipal buildings.

According to him, "the solution is to fully equip these buildings so that they are accessible to those with additional needs on a permanent basis. The issue cannot be addressed in an ad-hoc way." 

He also stated that another measure would be "making sure polling stations were on ground floors wherever possible."

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Empty promises

Tony Mikhael, legal advisor at Maharat foundation, says that many laws promote disabled people's rights, but so far just amount to "ink on paper."

Although successive governments have made statements about these rights, since 29 May 2000, the Council of Ministers has not issued one decree concerning the application of Law 220 (2000) (on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities), or clarified mechanisms to aid its application for ministries, public administrations and relevant private institutions, he says.

Mikhael mentions the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities of 2006. While Lebanon became a signatory in 2007, the country has never ratified it nor its optional protocol, which Mikhael believes "is evidence the state has no intention of implementing these rights, improving the conditions its citizens are living in, nor does it plan to work on integrating all segments of society."

He points out that "the number of polling stations equipped for disabled access can be counted on one hand, as most of them are on the second or third floors, and are impossible for those with disabilities to reach […] Additional funds must be made available to equip buildings planned for use as polling stations and make sure lifts are operational, toilets are suitably equipped, and other requirements are met, which will need time, but time is running short."

"The solution is to fully equip these buildings so that they are accessible to those with additional needs on a permanent basis. The issue cannot be addressed in an ad-hoc way"

Disability ignored in candidate campaigns

Regarding what Maharat has monitored around the electoral political campaigning, Mikhael says: "There is no doubt that the political discourse we are hearing from candidates hardly touches on disabled people's rights. Instead, we see politicised propaganda revolving around political accusations against opponents and appeals to voters' emotions. Slogans vary; some are campaigning around fighting corruption, others focus on sovereignty and Lebanon's neutrality, and others on wider political questions that are far removed from the issues being faced in people's daily lives."

Mikhael points out that "all the promises, slogans, and steps [towards ensuring disabled rights] remain unenforced. Law 220 (2000) said for example there should be a quota in the public sector for employing people with disabilities.[…] On the other hand, another law was issued in 2017 which suspended all public sector hiring without making an exception for people with disabilities, which destroyed that right."

Not giving up

In a recent demonstration in front of the governmental palace, LUPD called for "an inclusive voting process which respects diversity," and that their demands be met before the elections. Demonstrators clarified that this included ensuring that a ground floor room in all confirmed voting centres should be converted into a polling station wherever possible, and stressed that the humiliation disabled voters had been forced to endure in the past was "a crime against disabled voters" which they didn’t accept then, and will not accept today.

A source from the interior ministry stated: "The ministry is following up on the issues faced by disabled voters and looking into equipping buildings for them, and will ensure they are ready before May 15, because we wish to guarantee their rights and dignity and remove all the barriers they face. Using available funds we will ensure, alongside the relevant ministries, that all necessary equipment is provided and adjustments made."

Meanwhile, the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (LADE) stated that in the Lebanese expatriate elections which took place between from 6-8 May, observers found that many polling stations were inaccessible for those with disabilities. This was the case in Morocco, Britain, Gabon, the Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Netherlands, France, Russia, Germany, and Romania.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here.

Translated by Rose Chacko   

This article is taken from our Arabic sister publication, Al-Araby Al Jadeed and mirrors the source's original editorial guidelines and reporting policies. Any requests for correction or comment will be forwarded to the original authors and editors.

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