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Earlier this month, it emerged that Nigeria was to postpone its presidential election scheduled for 14 February to allow time to secure areas of the country controlled by Islamic extremists Boko Haram. [1] But even if this is achieved, some would-be voters still face problems.  

As millions enter voting booths, in Nigeria or elsewhere, what would their reaction be if the ballot papers made little to no sense?

According to Anna MacQuarrie, director of global initiatives, policy and human rights at NGO Inclusion International, this is the reality for people with intellectual disabilities. Despite recognition of the right to vote in Article 29 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, there has been little attempt by governments to ensure the voting procedure is as accessible as possible.

“The political process from the outset is exclusionary.”

Anna MacQuarrie, Inclusion International

Last year, Inclusion International launched a two-year research project, Accessing the Ballot Box, to address the issue of limited political participation of people with intellectual disabilities. It will be piloted in Kenya, Lebanon and Tanzania. “The aim is to provide information on how to ensure that people with intellectual disabilities are engaged in the civic life of their communities and countries,” says MacQuarrie.

The problems go deeper than just physically accessing the ballot box, she tells me. Negative stereotypes, cultural norms and laws prevent people with intellectual disabilities from voting. Many countries also have legislation and policies that deny the right to vote on the basis of ‘unsoundness of mind’.

There is also limited use of plain language. Written information such as candidate materials or voter registration processes would be easier to read and understand using everyday words supported by pictures. “The political process from the outset is exclusionary,” MacQuarrie says.

But the scale of the problem is unclear. The first hurdle to overcome is lack of data. In the three pilot countries, MacQuarrie and her team have yet to find any organisation that tracked the number of people with intellectual disabilities who voted. Without these data, it’s near impossible to assess the situation.

“Through surveys and engagement with our members, we have sought to collect data that helps establish a baseline for analysis,” she says.

Inclusion International did a simple online survey and used these data to develop two information toolkits. The first, for people with intellectual disabilities and their families, includes an accessible guide on the electoral process. The second is a checklist for government officials, who can play a crucial role in data collection. It can be used to analyse their compliance with the UN convention.

There are other ways to encourage the participation of people with intellectual disabilities before, during and after elections. For example, workshops can help train and advise electoral officials on practical solutions and provide concrete examples of inclusive civic engagement.


[1] Associated Press Nigeria to postpone elections to fight Boko Haram (The Guardian, 7 February 2015)