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Virtual Roundtable on Advocacy for Participation of South Asian Citizens with Disabilities

Updated: August 2021
Virtual Roundtable on Advocacy for Participation of South Asian Citizens with Disabilities

Participants of the South Asia Regional Disability Rights Dialogue on Political Participation (SARDRD), organized by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) and supported by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), provided insights into barriers and advocacy efforts a year after SARDRD. Responses were collected via email and have been lightly edited for style and clarity.

Roundtable Participants:


Senarath Attanayake, Uva Provincial Council – Attanayake was the first wheelchair-user to be a member of the Bar in Sri Lanka and currently serves as an elected member of legislative body.


Muhammad Atif, Special Talent Exchange Program (STEP) – Atif is Executive Director of STEP, which was conceived and initiated by persons with disabilities in 1997. A cross disability organization in Pakistan, STEP is committed to mainstreaming disability in development through empowering individuals and organizations of persons with disabilities as well as sensitizing society about rights-based approach.


Ahmed Mohamed, Maldives Association of Physical Disables (MAPD) and Member of National Assembly -  Mohamed serves as Chairperson of MAPD, an NGO registered to advocate for the equal rights and to provide equal opportunities to persons with disabilities. MAPD is a member of Disabled Peoples’ International Asia Pacific (DPI/AP).


Smitha Sadasivan, Vidya Sagar - Sadasivan is a disability rights activist and a person with neurological disability. She is currently working at Vidya Sagar, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) in India working on rights based services for children & adults with disabilities as well as involved in cross disability advocacy, and is also a member of a disabled people’s collective voluntary advocacy group called Disability Rights Alliance.


Shudarson Subedi, National Federation of the Disabled Nepal – Subedi is National President of National Federation of the Disabled Nepal (NFDN). He is one of the active advocate in the field of disability and human rights field in Nepal. He had played an active role to include political right in a new constitution in Nepal.



What are the primary barriers to equal participation in South Asia?


Atif: In South Asia, 90% of persons with disabilities are living under [the] poverty level, which means they have lack of access to information and education; that is why they have no vision about the importance of their participation in the electoral process. Financial incentive is a big barrier for their full and effective participation. One, they don’t have money for transportation in order to commute from home to the polling station – if anyone supports them in mobility they will prefer to cast a vote in their favor. Lastly, at a political party level they don’t prefer to include persons with disabilities in their parties because they feel that persons with disabilities are not popular enough to make with their elections.


Mohamed: Lack of proper information and sensitizing (Sensitizing materials with sign language) Legislative amendments and accessible transportation facilities. Awareness as well.


Sadasivan: (1) Inaccessible infrastructure & information; (2) Unavailability of policies, rules, laws pertaining to inclusive & accessible electoral process for persons with disabilities in respective countries; and (3) Insensitive social attitudes that discriminate, neglect and exclude persons with disabilities from political participation on an equal basis with others are the primary barriers.


Subedi: In South Asia, disability issue is not recognizing [access of persons with disabilities] as a development issue. People's negative attitude, [the] ignorance of policy makers towards disability issues, unfriendly physical and social barriers are the primary barriers to equal participation in South Asia.


Attanayake: Lack of CRPD based disability rights laws; stigma, discrimination and a greater lack of awareness and understanding; lack of accessible infrastructure; lack of access to inclusive education; lack of equal opportunities to employment; lack of access to political participation.



How have advocacy efforts on a local and national level improved access to political life for persons with disabilities in your country?


Subedi: In the beginning, political parties [did] not give opportunity [to a] person with a disability as a leadership role; they [were] only [allowed to be] a general member. We did strong advocacy [and lobbied] to change the constitution of each political [party to] include persons with disability in leadership level. Now most of the political parties change their constitution and there is reservation seat for persons with disability as a result; now we have five parliament members [with disabilities] at our parliament.


Atif: Through advocacy, Election Management Bodies [EMBs] include the participation of persons with disabilities in their strategic plans. They are not included [by] providing [a] disability chapter in their training manual for their staff, and in some countries they have developed a working group on disability, which will guide [EMBs] for more inclusive electoral processes. 


Sadasivan: Our advocacy efforts at local and national level have [led] to the inclusion of diverse groups of maximum persons with disabilities [to] exercise their right to franchise by implementing the following measures for the first time in the Indian history:

  • persons with psychosocial disabilities getting enrolled and voting
  • a nodal officer for accessible & inclusive elections being deputed for working towards including maximum number of persons with disabilities in elections
  • 13000 wheelchairs and volunteers in 13000 polling stations
  • exclusive accessible polling booths for persons with disabilities in certain locations, access auditors from disability sector facilitated by election authorities
  • training of District collectors by persons with disabilities on accessible elections
  • voter education material transcribed into Braille
  • [Government-organized] street plays involving sign language interpreters
  • mock voting camps in simple language for persons with intellectual/psychosocial disabilities
  • standard ramps and accessible infrastructure in many polling booths
  • information on facilities for voters with disabilities spread wide by the Election Commission and Disability movement enabling many persons with severe/multiple disabilities [who were] voting for the first time
  • special notice issued by ECI [Election Commission of India] regarding facilities for voters with disabilities to Chief Electoral officers of all states
  • [designated] parking for persons with disabilities’ vehicles within polling booths
  • polling officials being patient, sensitive and accommodative to the extra time and adjustments required for persons with different disabilities inside polling booths, etc. 

Attanayake: Increased interest and active engagement of the Election Commission on ensuring the right to political participation; advocacy efforts by DPOs, civil society and international organizations (ex: IFES); awareness campaigns; accessibility improvement of Polling Centres in Moneragala District, Uva Province; engagement of Election Monitoring Organizations in promoting accessible elections.


Mohamed: In Maldives, advocacy played a vital role to the political life of [persons with disabilities] in [the] capital city. But we do have barriers to reach local community because of geographical isolation of islands in Maldives where the most [people with disabilities] reside. To reach each and every island/atoll, it costs beyond the financial limitation of NGOs [because of the costs of] transportation food and accommodation of facilitators. But it is important to reach them.

However, MAPD have formed a team of 7 members to work on this project in collaboration with EC-Maldives [the Election Commission of the Maldives], called “IFES Maldives Team”. The IFES Maldives team held 3 meetings with EC Maldives Board members and working in progress with EC Maldives. EC- Maldives has agreed to collaborate with the team and implement most of the recommendations passed at Colombo, October 2015, South Asia Regional Disability Rights Dialogue on Political Participation.


How has regional collaboration on disability rights bolstered efforts on election access in your country?


Mohamed: The regional collaboration is playing very important role. Inspiring to work as a team and bolstering the efforts on disability rights [of persons with disabilities] on election access in Maldives. It created a platform to share the progress of efforts and results by regional countries.


Sadavisan: The regional collaboration which involved the EMB from India was a great tool as the ECI was directly involved in the same and had taken up some responsibility at the international forum in this regard. The regional collaboration also sensitized the EMB whose commissioners/officials were very receptive when the disability movement of India took the matter of disabled friendly elections in late 2015 after the collaboration. The disability movement also got in-depth knowledge about inclusive and accessible electoral [processes] due to the collaboration and its dissemination of information on the same.


Attanayake: Lessons learning and sharing of experiences between Election Management Bodies; networking between and among EMBs, Election Monitoring Agencies, DPOs and civil society; increased awareness; [and] planning and implementation of election access measures.


Subedi: We do not have to common forum regarding electoral and political rights in South Asia, so we should create a common platform to advocate this issue in our region and respective countries. Then we need to work jointly to influence SAARC to prepare a declaration in disability issue. We need to work build the capacity of South Asia disabled leaders. 


Atif: In Pakistan through the regional collaboration, ECP [Election Commission of Pakistan] is involved proactively [in] the inclusion of persons with disabilities in all elections. Even some political parties have established their disability wings, which only targets voters with disabilities in their respective constituencies. Pakistan has taken a lot of guidance from India and Bangladesh to improve their strategic plans for inclusive electoral process.


What top recommendation would you make to improve political participation of persons with disabilities in South Asia?


Attanayake: Increase awareness among political leaders and encouraging them to commit to disability inclusion

  • Support advocacy efforts
  • Encourage more people with disabilities to contest in the mainstream and to come forward to vote and get engaged in the electoral process
  • Share experiences among countries
  • Ensure physical access to polling centres
  • Awareness campaigns


Subedi: Existing policy and program related the political participation should make the disability friendly. All agencies and stakeholder should focus to build the capacity of persons with disability. South Asia level learning sharing and exchange event need to organize to share the best practice and build leadership capability of persons with disabilities [as an] individual.


Sadavisan: (1) Laws /Policies/Procedures/Rules pertaining to the inclusion of all persons with all disabilities in the electoral process shall be formulated and implemented within a short time frame in each Country/State in South Asia. (2) Persons with disabilities to be involved at decision making and implementing levels as accessibility nodal officials in electoral process, trainers for election officials wrt [sic] disability interventions during the electoral process and as official election observers.


Atif: Our top recommendation to improve political participation of persons with disabilities in South Asia is that state parties must formulate disability inclusive legislation which will respect and protect the rights of persons with disabilities in South Asia.


Mohamed: (1) Form a regional dialogue group/Forum to discuss and monitor the implementation of recommendations agreed by the regional ECs officials on political participation of persons with disabilities in South Asia. (2) Have frequent possible meeting to update progress of implementation of the recommendations with regional levels. (3) Form individual countries’ IFES Teams who can create dialogs with EC in the respective countries [and] share the progress/expertise with regional dialogue groups.