Political participation is key to advancing disability rights and countering discrimination across all political spheres. Inclusive political systems and states can only be achieved if all sectors and segments of the population have equitable, accessible and open space to work together to advance collective priorities. Inclusion can only be accomplished when underrepresented groups have the necessary legislative, environmental, social and procedural measures that allow them to be key influences in the political arena, and exercise their civil and political rights equitably and with dignity.
Persons with disabilities are among several underrepresented groups who experience structural and systematic discrimination and exclusion, often perceived as objects, less valued and passive recipients. This coincides with the fact that persons with disabilities do not enjoy their basic social and economic rights such as access to inclusive education, health, habilitation and rehabilitation, movement, and employment. The situation holds particularly true and is exacerbated in many Arab countries that struggle with political and armed conflicts, occupation, economic disasters and debilitating social structures.
These complexities pose significant questions in relation to political participation and the rights of persons with disabilities, such as:
- When citizens with disabilities are deprived of their basic rights, which are prerequisites to effective political participation, are they capable of perceiving political participation as a priority?
- When basic needs and rights are not met for the majority of citizens, is it possible to put the right of persons with disabilities to political participation on the agenda?
- What is the feasibility of addressing the right of persons with disabilities to political participation as states struggle with armed conflict, economic crises or other emergencies?
Although these questions are well-founded, they reinforce the idea that political participation and the processes relevant to meeting basic needs and navigating crises are mutually exclusive rather than mutually reinforcing. In emergency situations, persons with disabilities are playing and can play essential roles in decision-making processes to ensure humanitarian programs do not leave anyone behind. Having navigated diverse forms of discrimination and barriers, persons with disabilities are experts in innovative approaches to advocacy and creating entry points for engagement, even in times of conflict and transition. Political participation enables persons with disabilities to push for and secure job opportunities, including senior positions allowing them to transform the job market for other communities. The participation of persons with disabilities enhances access to information, reduces barriers within the built environment and creates space for persons with disabilities to strengthen civil society by establishing organizations to promote and sustain disability rights advocacy, community organizing and representation at the district and national levels.
Developing knowledge and skills are key to enhancing the effective political participation of persons with disabilities, alongside facilitating opportunities for planning and implementing advocacy campaigns and strategically engaging decision makers. Accordingly, the Arab Forum for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (AFRPD), in partnership with NDI, launched an initiative to promote persons with disabilities’ right to political participation in four Arab countries: Lebanon, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia. This initiative consists of several components that seek to support and strengthen the power of AFRPD member organizations to strategically engage decision-makers to advance disability priorities in their respective countries. Support to date has included:
- Research, whereby member organizations strengthened their knowledge and skills on designing and implementing research methodology and tools. Research identified barriers that hinder persons with disabilities’ enjoyment of the right to political participation and provided member organizations with useful data to inform evidenced-based policies;
- Capacity building of member organizations on the right to political participation embodied in international treaties and national legislation, policy development processes, advocacy skills, strategic communications and other necessary topics identified by the organizations;
- Support member organizations to plan and implement advocacy campaigns in their countries, targeting strategic stakeholders such as political parties, politicians, ministers, election management bodies and other disability and human rights organizations.
- Cross-regional sharing sessions, bringing together diverse disability activists and leaders from outside of the Arab region to highlight challenges and exchange lessons learned when engaging decision-makers on disability rights and priorities as well as developing contingency plans to sustain engagement and advocacy in evolving political environments.
Throughout this initiative, AFRPD’s members leveraged new skill sets to the maximum, seeking to improve persons with disabilities’ effective participation in elections, striving to be key agents in the decision-making processes, and fighting for public policies which protect their rights as enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).
In Libya, despite the complex political situation, an AFRPD member, the Libyan Organization for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, held several meetings with relevant governmental parties demanding the drafting and passage of a new law on the rights of persons with disabilities in line with the CRPD. The meetings resulted in a commitment from the Libyan government to review existing laws and launch a process of developing new laws that safeguard persons with disabilities rights in Libya and take into account legal measures necessary to protect persons with disabilities of diverse identities and severity of disability. AFRPD member, the Lebanese Union for People with Physical Disabilities (LUPD), held meetings with relevant governmental parties in charge of facilitating and supervising municipal elections. During conversations, LUPD highlighted the need for better data collection on disability prevalence, reasonable accommodations in the election process and the roles and responsibilities of each entity to tackle these topics. Since the meetings, LUPD continues to apply pressure on relevant government institutions to hold them accountable to their commitments to guarantee fair and effective participation for persons with disabilities in municipal elections. Should LUPD be successful in their initiatives, it will have broader implications on inclusive education for students with disabilities given that polling stations tend to be located in schools.
Despite the monumental efforts of AFRPD’s member organizations, challenges remain which will require drastic shifts and changes to national legislation as well as the attitudes and behaviors of political parties and decision-makers. It will also require disability activists and organizations to continue to hold governments accountable, ensure relevant stakeholders have proper knowledge on disability rights and take the necessary measures to comply with the CRPD, and call out rights abuses when and where they take place. The expertise developed under this partnership with NDI is an important step in this direction. The more political participation is elevated as a tool for meeting basic needs and navigating crises, the more persons with disabilities can truly enjoy their social, economic, cultural and civil rights with dignity and respect.
Authors: Shatha Abou Srour, Rona Dbeissi, Mohammed Loutfy - Executive Secretariat of the Arab Forum for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
NDI is a non-profit, non-partisan, non-governmental organization that works in partnership around the world to strengthen and safeguard democratic institutions, processes, norms and values to secure a better quality of life for all. NDI envisions a world where democracy and freedom prevail, with dignity for all.