PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – Disabled Cambodians have the same right to vote as able-bodied individuals, but many of them are denied this basic right due to a lack of facilities and vaguely-worded laws, according to activists seeking more inclusive electoral participation.
Eu Lee, executive director of the Cambodia Disabled People Independent Living Organization, said the country’s election laws have overlooked the needs and rights of disabled people, who should be guaranteed the same rights as able-bodied citizens.
“We would like to see the National Election Committee (NEC) register and categorize disabled people according to their disability,” he said. “If the NEC could build a reliable database on the disabled, it would be very useful to all of us.”
The data could help authorities respond better to the varying needs of different categories of disability, he said.
For example, a blind person may need special tools or assistance to find a polling station and to read documents, while a mobility-challenged individual may require special transport or wheelchair accessible facilities.
“A disabled person needs to have a strong will to go to vote,” said Mr. Lee, who moves around with the aid of a wheelchair. He recalls having to ask people to carry him up stairways to reach the polling station, and that it was difficult for him to read voter information there because it was posted too high on the wall.
Barriers to Registration
People with disabilities make up about 5 percent of Cambodia’s population, according to the 2012 Cambodia Socio Economic Survey. Some of the hurdles they face even before they can mark an “X” on their ballot include inaccessible polling stations, a lack of directional signs to and from the polls, and the conspicuous absence of tools or materials to help blind and deaf voters.
Ngin Saorath, executive director of the Cambodian Disabled People’s Organization (CDPO), said the main problem faced by disabled people when exercising their right to vote was the process of registration. He said the process should recognize the challenges that the disabled face and provide an option of permitting registration by proxy or at the disabled person’s house.
“For disabled people who cannot read or write, their relatives or electoral authorities should be permitted to register for them,” he told Khmer Times. “For disabled people who work on weekends, the authorities should allow them to register anytime they are able to.”
He also highlighted the need for new electoral legislation that creates a favorable environment for the disabled, facilitating their registration and voting by providing suitable tools and support.
Special Tools for the Disabled
“For example, blind people could vote via special tools that allow them to touch and recognize [symbols of] different political parties and vote for the party they like,” Mr. Saorath said. “Blind people could also have access to information concerning elections via specialized reading tools.”
He added that although current election laws mentioned disability, these laws were not comprehensive. New laws, therefore, should include input from disabled people.
Shades of Gray
Mr. Saorath said that although existing legislation excluded those suffering from insanity from voting, the law did not categorize degrees of insanity, unfairly excluding those with the capacity for sound judgment.
“The degree of insanity can be divided into three categories: light, medium and heavy insanity,” Mr Saorath said. “New election laws could allow disabled people in the light and medium insanity categories to vote, because they have the ability to control their mind and differentiate between right and wrong.”
Hang Puthea, the spokesman for the NEC, told Khmer Times that the Constitution encompasses and treats as equal all citizens, including the disabled.
“Existing election laws do not mention any particular group of disabled people,” he said, “but new laws will give disabled people more opportunity to ensure that they’re not being discriminated against and have the same opportunity to vote as the able-bodied.”