The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has assured people with disabilities (PWD) of improved access to polling units in the forthcoming Osun and Ekiti election
INEC also said that it will ensure that assistive materials provided by the commission are used by its ad-hoc staff where needed.
The assurance from INEC follows calls from PWD on challenges faced while trying to access voting areas during elections.
Persons with disabilities in Nigeria have expressed concern over the inability of some members of the National Youth Service Corps to implement the training they receive from the commission during the election. Olukayode Owolabi, who is the Ekiti state chairman of the Joint National Association of Persons With Disabilities (JONAPWD) some of the corps members has received various training from the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) on how to handle PWD but barely practice that at the poll. INEC usually deploys the services of corps members to serve as ad-hoc staff during elections across the country.
Owolabi made the disclosure at a stakeholders roundtable meeting organised by the Inclusive Friends Association ahead of the Ekiti and Osun states gubernatorial elections. The meeting focused on addressing the challenges of polling unit accessibility and efficient deployment of assistive materials to ease voting for PWD in the off-cycle Osun and Ekiti governorship election.
Continuing Owolabi said: “Some corps members do not even know that Albinos are part of PWDs, they are so young and do not understand these things or why PWDs should be allowed priority voting during an election. The worst part of it is they don’t know and when you try to approach them, they don’t even listen to or care about what you say“.
Condemning the inability of the INEC ad-hoc staff to use the Form E 40H provided by INEC for records of voters with disabilities, Owolabi called for more training and monitoring by INEC and stakeholders during elections.
His words: “I was at a polling unit with many persons with disabilities, we voted and after the election when the votes were been counted, the ad-hoc staff serving as the presiding officer said that no PWD was at the polling unit.”
“This means the Form E 40H which was provided was never used and the same applies to other materials including the magnifying glass to ease voting among many others.”
Owolabi also listed some other challenges faced by people with disabilities including access to the polling units and priority voting for PWD. In addition, the Chairman for the Abuja chapter of JONAPWD, Sulayman Ujah urged the electoral commission to make provision for posters around the polling units as a reminder that priority voting rights should be given to PWD, pregnant women and elderly ones.
Ujah appealed to INEC to ensure that the 5 percent employment opportunity for PWD which has been provided by the Discrimination Act be adhered to. He noted that having such a level of inclusion among election ad-hoc staff will prevail PWD to the opportunity to be heard and have their challenges reduced to the barest minimum.
Reacting to the concerns raised by Owolabi, the Resident Electoral Commissioner for Osun state, Professor Olayinka Raji said that INEC will continue to ensure that best practices are adopted during the elections across the country.
He said the Nigerian government opted to use members of the NYSC, federal government staff and where necessary final year students of federal universities to avoid any form of allegiance to political parties of persons.
His words: “In the past, we’ve tried teachers in the state schools and private schools but that did not work because of power of incumbency where you have these people loyal to their governors. That was why we decided to use staff of federal institutions/universities. We use NYSC members because they know that if they commit any electoral crime, their discharge certificates are at stake.”
“We’ve used lawyers now we are using academics from federal universities who also know that their jobs and reputation are at stake; if we need to migrate to other categories of people we will.”
Voting priority and assistive materials for PWD For priority voting, Raji reiterated that every Assistant Presiding Officer 3 (APO3) is expected to set up an additional queue different from the general one for PWDs. He also promised that INEC would continue to take steps to improve its strategy and policy for conducting a free, fair and credible election in Nigeria. For assistive material needed by PWDs during the election, Raji said the commission would be providing braille ballot papers and braille jackets for visually-impaired persons.
Raji said: “PWDs will use the same ballot papers that others are using, but the ballot paper will now be inserted into Braille jackets. This means that one braille jacket can be used by all visually-impaired persons at a polling unit.
“It is not a matter of printing 174,000 Braille ballot papers, but a jacket will now cover all. We have also made provisions for considerable number of magnifying glasses in each ward.”
In her remarks, the Disability Inclusion Officer at Inclusive Friends Association (IFA), an NGO, Tracy Onabis, said PWDs have continued to face significant barriers in participating in elections. Representing Grace Jerry, the executive director of IFA, Onabis said these barriers faced by PWDs discourage them from participating in elections. She said the roundtable aimed at securing commitments for the introduction of electoral reforms like the introduction of the Braille ballot guide for the visually-impaired and voting instructions for voters with hearing impairments.
According to her, the roundtable became necessary because IFA deployed sample-based election observation to the November 6, 2021, Anambra governorship election and noted the barriers PWDs experienced.
Addressing the stakeholders, the assistant administrative secretary, Electoral Institute, Tunde Ojeoduku, said that INEC’s focus while preparing for a new election cycle is to ensure that the next poll is always better than the previous one.
He said: “We must agree that we are progressing; we are not claiming perfection but be assured that INEC is working towards perfecting and closing all these loopholes discussed and more.”