Rights of Persons with Disabilities When Voting

Updated: September 2020

On September 1, 2020, Jamaicain radio show "Beyond the Headlines" held a conversation that discussed the challenges and barriers that persons with disabilities face at the polling station. Host Dionne Jackson-Miller interviewed Gloria Goffe, Executive Director of the Combined Disabilities Association, supported by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), to get insights on exercising the right to vote. The transcript is available in English below.


[Transcript begins]


Dionne Jackson-Miller: So back at home, back to voting, because we are now two days from Election Day, one of the things I do every election is touch base with the representatives of the Disabled Community. I do this because, over the years, there have been all kinds of problems with the voting. Some of them, in some instances I think we have seen improvements. Gloria Goffe with the Combined Disabilities Association. Thank you so much, we always appreciate you talking to us. Can you hear me, Mrs. Goffe?


Gloria: Hello?


Dionne: Can you hear me?


Gloria: No, I am just hearing from you now. Good evening, Dionne.


Dionne: It's great to have you again, thank you so much for talking to us. One of the problems that I know we have had over the years is the placement of polling stations on the second and third floors of buildings. And then, people with physical disabilities having to be carried up. And listeners, really and truly, this is not a good look, it is not something you want for people, but I think more and more we have seen polling stations put at ground level, am I right Mrs. Goffe?


Gloria: Yes, when I spoke with the director of Elections, he told me that a little over 90% are placed on ground floors.


Dionne: Okay, so we are getting there, not quite there yet-


Gloria: Not quite there, we want that 100%.


Dionne: Absolutely.


Gloria: Because that extra 8% might just be somebody with a disability and not every person can manage stairs.


Dionne: Yes, and people are supposed to be able to come to vote with dignity, not with people needing to lift them and carry them up the stairs it's just-


Gloria: And it's dangerous too, you know?


Dionne: Yes of course. Of course. There is that issue. Okay so we are getting there with that one, but there are a number of other issues that you-


Gloria: And before we move there, I must also point out that one of the challenges is that if you are unable to go up the staircase, what protocols exist for you to exercise your vote? And, in our letter to Mr. Earl Jarrett, we pointed out what was obtained previously and we hope this has changed. Speaking with the Director of Elections, he advised that, if a person with a physical challenge, who cannot go upstairs, or sometimes when the polling stations are placed on the ground floor, you still have stairs to go up, what should happen if the preceding officer along with the indoor agents takes the ballots to the individuals? The individual is allowed to mark the ballot presently, fold it, hand it back to the presiding officer. Then the officer will take it, remove the foil and drop it into the ballot box- with the supervision of course, of the indoor agents along with the other staff. So that would ensure that nothing happens between when the person marks the ballot, hands it back to the presiding officer and the ballot gets placed in the box. So that is a little more comforting, than what was reported some time ago when it was only the presiding officer who came to the person that marked the ballots, then handed it back. So this confirmed- it is not the most ideal because you want to go inside the place, but at least it is better than what was obtained.


Dionne: You are proposing though, that voters that need that kind of support have somebody go with them, to help give them that extra level of security and observation?


Gloria: Yes, we had proposed that on the basis of the complaints we got, was that on the presiding officer alone came to the individual to mark the ballots. The concern was that the presiding officer was going back up the stairs with the ballot, without anybody with her. This was the concern, so we were proposing that was the case, so somebody should accompany the presiding officer to ensure, you know, that the ballot- nothing happens between the individual and getting to the ballot box.


Dionne: Okay, so in addition, the issue of someone hard of hearing, because there is a special provision for that, but you are saying that a lot of people don't know?


Gloria: Well, what a lot of people don't know is that it's not that they can't vote, they know that they can, but where the challenge was is that they did not know that the person who assisted them to vote cannot vote for anybody else. So there were occasions, for example, where there were two persons with visual disabilities in a home or a community, and one of those persons had, let's say a daughter, who would assist her then want to assist, let's say a gentleman. And that person was unable to vote because going to the polling station, after voting for her mother or sister, ready to vote for the gentlemen, but that was not allowed under the basis that the law or the moves of the election, or activity do not facilitate that. So this is what we wanted to get out there, that your assistant can only vote for you and you alone on that date.


Dionne: Okay, so if there is more than one of you, everybody needs to go with their own assistant.


Gloria: Right so we are saying that it should be out there so that people can prepare. Not to say they’re waiting on Jane, because Jane is going to vote for John and then she will come and vote for me. It should be out there that you need to identify your own assistant.


Dionne: That makes sense. You say that you have other recommendations, that you have been communicating to them after the election? What I was going to ask was that you guys have so much experience by now, in terms of the issues and what works and does not work, so why wait until the election is called to raise issues?


Gloria: Alright, we have always met with the EOG officials, over the years and some of the issues that we have raised in the past are being addressed, or have been addressed. The choices that there is still some lack of knowledge, on the part and in some of our own people, both disabled and non-disabled persons, and we had planned again to have this meeting- as a matter of fact, we had also planned as we had requested in the past to actually help in training for the election day workers. Because everything happened so suddenly, because of some lack of requests and resources, some of what we had done now we would not have been able to do without the support from International Foundation for Electoral Systems, so we had planned to do some of this, but it is rushed. So we have done flyers now, we have done a video, which the video has sign language interpretation- on the voting procedure on persons who need assistance. And it is not only persons who are blind, that need this assistance, but persons with no arms, persons with who because of Parkinson’s Disease, or something else, cannot write because their hand will shake, or other things. Right? So we now have flyers, which has gone out on WhatsApp, Facebook, websites, and so on. Then, as I said we have the video, which shows the procedure for how the assistants operate and the rules that govern that.


Dionne: You mentioned assistants and training, do you find generally speaking, when persons with disabilities turn up, that the election workers are trained properly? That they do understand what the law allows and what people are allowed to do? Or is it uneven?


Gloria: Well, except for when persons with physical disabilities come in, sometimes they are not sure of what to do. I have been informed by the EOG director, that he has informed all of the polling workers of the protocols, on what is to be done. So if for example, if what is suggested to a person in a wheelchair and they are not comfortable with it, then there is a supervisor at the polling station, who can assist in the process, in terms of finding a better way. I find that, in my own experience, is that the election workers- or those that I have interacted with, are knowledgeable. Where the challenge lies, Dionne is for persons who have hidden disabilities. Or the disabilities, that are not readily identified.


Dionne: Okay, give me an example of that.


Gloria: For example, when I walk in with my white cane and with my assistant-


Dionne: Right, everybody says, “Yes, here is a blind person!”


Gloria: Right, they say “let her go to the front, or let her go through and so on.” You walk in as a deaf person, with no hearing aid, you walk in and your disability is not physical. You are a slow learner, who it takes someone a while to explain something to you, for you to understand it, nobody is going to give you the time of day because you don't seem "disabled." So, this is where the challenge lies. So a deaf person may walk in and maybe ask for direction to a polling station, the communication barrier exists and sometimes, with complaints we have had is that security, officials, guards, will think you are faking to get through the line to go through early. This is another challenge. So our intention is to participate in the training process, also, we have in the past, given the EOG a wealth of information in terms of what is required.


Dionne: Yes, yes. Well I have to leave it there for today, but we are always happy to talk to you about this, so please keep us in the loop.


Gloria: Thank you, Dionne. Thank you for having us and thank you for giving us the opportunity to talk and go public with what we are doing. I am hoping that all members will pay attention to all the advisories and all the information that we are sending through the different platforms.


Dionne: We certainly hope so. Gloria Goffe talking to us there, she is executive director of the Combined Disabilities Association. Stay tuned, we are back in a moment.


[Transcript ends]