In Lebanon, disabled voters struggle to reach the polls

Disability
10 min read
03 December, 2021
Lebanese disabled voters have faced barriers in the past. Will 2022 be any different?

Amal Charif’s candidacy in the 2016 Beirut municipal elections made headlines: She was the first disabled woman to run for office in the city’s history. So it was only natural that when she went to cast her ballot, she was accompanied by an entourage of local media.

What they discovered upon arriving at the polling station, however, was that the building was completely inaccessible to people with disabilities. The elevators of the building had been “disabled for maintenance” that day, and Charif’s voting booth was on the 4th floor.

"Her 'exhausting' journey to vote was broadcast on live TV, provoking promises from officials that the next election cycle would be disability-friendly"

Charif, who relies on a wheelchair to get around but can walk short distances if necessary, made a painstaking slog up the stairs with the aid of crutches. Her “exhausting” journey to vote was broadcast on live TV, provoking promises from officials that the next election cycle would be disability-friendly.

In 2018, Charif again went to vote and found that once again, the elevators were out of service. The Ministry of Interior, which runs Lebanon’s elections, suggested that disabled voters could be carried up the stairs.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Amal Charif (@amalization_)

Not a candidate, but just a voter this time, Charif had no media spotlight on her in 2018. So she filmed herself being carried up four flights of stairs, a journey that took half an hour. The experience was “painful and humiliating” and gave the muscle spasms that left her bedridden for five days afterwards, she said.

“We are not a sack of potatoes… Carrying someone is humiliating and risky. Next time I will refuse,” Charif said.

"We are not a sack of potatoes… Carrying someone is humiliating and risky"

Empty promises and lies

Charif’s experience was typical of the Lebanese state’s treatment of disabled people, disability activists told The New Arab.

“We have been fighting since 2005 for inclusive voting, but until now we have received nothing but empty promises and lies,” Sylvana Lakkis, the president of the Lebanese Union for People with Physical Disabilities and Chairwoman of the Arab Forum for the Rights of People with Disabilities, said.

“Every time they say ‘we don’t have enough time to do all this, but we promise for next time’ – and next time never comes,” Lakkis added.

The issue of inclusive voting is once again coming to the forefront as Lebanon approaches its newest round of parliamentary elections on March 27.

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Part of the issue, she explained, is that each election has a new elections law. The scramble to design a new elections law in Lebanon’s fragmented parliament each cycle often means that details about the elections process are not designed until the eleventh hour. Even for the upcoming election, ambiguity around logistics and dates mean that planning for accessibility and inclusion options is difficult.

This ad-hoc decision-making process does not leave much time to figure out the logistics to make elections accessible. The result is cobbled-together solutions, like carrying individuals up flights of stairs, which leave disabled people feeling as if they are merely an afterthought.

These solutions are not only risky for all involved but also can undermine the integrity of the electoral process. Some of the volunteers who carry disabled people at polling centres are often affiliated with political parties and some attempt to influence the way they vote.

"Some of the volunteers who carry disabled people at polling centres are often affiliated with political parties and some attempt to influence the way they vote"

Lakkis said that she had received reports of disabled people being carried up the stairs and being instructed on how they should vote by the volunteers who carried them. On some occasions, after they were done voting, volunteers would leave them stranded on the upper floors of the building and not help them down.

Both Charif and Lakkis emphasised that accessibility issues should not be just viewed as a niche issue. Despite disabled people having inherent rights which should be respected on their own, the definition of being “disabled” can be expanded to fit many categories.

Elderly people and those who recently have had accidents that caused mobility issues face a similar set of challenges to disabled people, Charif explained. Some of the accommodations made to make buildings and facilities more accessible could one day prove useful to someone who considers themselves able-bodied.

The New Arab contacted the Lebanese Ministry of Interior for a comment but did not receive a response.

In Lebanon, disabled voters struggle to reach the polls
People with disabilities are very much marginalised in the country 

Laws on the books… and only on the books

Frustrated with her experience and determined to secure her basic rights, Charif, along with another disabled individual who refused to be carried up the stairs in 2018, sued the Lebanese state. The lawsuit aimed to ensure that disabled people were allowed to vote in dignity and asked for compensation for past damages.

In April 2021, the State Consultative Council issued a decision on the case, ruling against Charif and the other plaintiff. The council refused to compensate the two for any damages, saying that while the state has certain legal responsibilities towards disabled people, “exceptional circumstances” exempt the state from fulfilling these obligations.

Lebanon does have several laws on the books which are meant to protect the rights of disabled individuals. Foremost among them is law 220, which was passed in 2000.

Law 220 guarantees basic rights for disabled people in the economic, political and social spheres. The law sets up employment quotas in the public and private sector recognises disabled children’s right to an education and recognises a broad set of political and social rights that should be ensured for disabled people.

While good on paper, little has been done to implement the law twenty years after it was first passed. “Most of the law is still not implemented – when you talk about education, employment, environment, these are still not accessible or inclusive,” Lakkis said. “People with disabilities are very much marginalised,” she added.

"The law sets up employment quotas in the public and private sector, recognises disabled children’s right to an education and recognises a broad set of political and social rights that should be ensured for disabled people"

Lakkis added that a little over 100,000 people have registered for disability cards with the Ministry of Social Affairs, though it’s estimated up to 15 percent of the population (approximately 950,000 people) have a disability in Lebanon. Most disabled people do not see a benefit from engaging with the state, and relevant ministries have done a poor job of outreach, Lakkis explained.

The Council’s justification for the state’s lack of fulfilment of these legal obligations was the “exceptional circumstances” Lebanon is going through. The country is currently going through the worst economic crisis in its modern history, with the national currency losing 95 percent of its value and two-thirds of its population thrust into poverty.

However, according to Charbel Chaaya, who co-wrote the legal brief on the case with Legal Agenda, a Lebanese NGO which represented the plaintiffs, the state has had more than enough time to fulfil its promises to disabled people.

“In no way was this period exceptional, the state has had 18 years to guarantee this right and still failed to do so,” Chaaya told The New Arab.

"They don’t respect disabled people. For them, carrying us up the stairs is the best they can do. They take it for granted that no matter what they say and what they do, no one will judge them"

“The right of persons with disabilities to vote, like all citizens, is a political right guaranteed by the International Bill of Civic and Political Rights. This is a declaration of the [state’s] contempt for this category of persons. This is like saying that the last concern of the state is these rights,” Chaaya said.

The council also said that the responsibility for upholding the rights of disabled people is divided between ministries, and the Ministry of Interior, which is responsible for running elections in Lebanon, did its job right. The court argued that because the Ministry of Interior is the ministry relied upon by the state to run elections, the fact that other ministries failed to do their job does not implicate the state in any wrongdoing.

“This reasoning goes against the principles that rule the state of law – the division of its responsibilities is nothing but an evasion of responsibility,” Charbel Chaaya, a researcher with, told The New Arab.

Charif said that she was disappointed in the court’s decision. “They don’t respect disabled people. For them, carrying us up the stairs is the best they can do. They take it for granted that no matter what they say and what they do, no one will judge them.”

She added that if nothing changes in the next election cycle, she will try to organise a campaign among disabled people to cast spoilt ballots as a form of protest. Spoilt ballots are included and reported in the final vote count.

The New Arab contacted the ruling judge on the case but received no response at the time of publishing.

It is estimated up to 15% of the population (approximately 950,000 people) have a disability in Lebanon... Most disabled people do not see a benefit from engaging with the state, and relevant ministries have done a poor job of outreach

Disabled among the worst affected by the economic crisis

There is much at stake in the upcoming election cycle. It will be the first since Lebanon’s 2019 October revolution, when millions took to the streets demanding an end to systemic corruption which has plagued the country for so long.

For Lebanese with disabilities, however, the next election is even more critical.

People with disabilities have been some of the hardest hit by the country’s economic and political crisis. Whatever issues face able-bodied people in terms of employment, transportation and political inclusion are compounded for those with disabilities.

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Shortages in basic goods, like fuel and medicine, have impacted disabled people deeply. Mobility issues mean and reliance on caregivers means that transportation is a necessity for disabled people, not a luxury. Many disabled people do not have the ability to wait in gas queues for hours on end, which had been the only way to secure fuel prior to the lifting of subsidies in August.

“Disabled people are among the poorest people in the country, and the situation is getting worse,” Lakkis said. She added that there is an 83 percent unemployment rate among disabled people in Lebanon, despite legal quotas put in place to guarantee disabled people forms of employment.

Many disabled people work in the informal sector, limiting the legal protections they have from getting fired and ensuring fair compensation.

Those who do not work oftentimes rely on family for support, but the dire economic crisis has affected the ability of breadwinners to support their family members, let alone secure necessary goods for disabled people, like wheelchairs and sensory aids.

Aid projects have popped all over Lebanon following the August 4 Beirut port blast in an attempt to stem the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Lebanon. However, many of these aid projects do not address the needs of disabled people nor do they include them in their work plans, according to Lakkis.

“When they designed the aid projects, they did not include these issues.  We are very angry, for example, when we see schools being rebuilt, without making the buildings accessible. It is important they use their guidelines for disability inclusion in Lebanon, not to accept any less,” Lakkis said.

The 2022 elections then, will be a chance for disabled Lebanese to have their voices heard – if they can reach the ballot box.

William Christou is The New Arab's Levantine correspondent, covering the politics of the Levant and the Mediterranean. William is also a researcher with the Orient Policy Center. Previously, he worked as a journalist with Syria Direct in Amman, Jordan. 

Follow him on Twitter: @will_christou