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Through careful planning and advocacy efforts, disability rights activists in South Asia collaborated with the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) to successfully encourage government agencies from eight different countries to begin talking about disability rights and inclusion of persons with disabilities.
The disability rights activists first met in Colombo, Sri Lanka while attending a regional conference on political rights for people with disabilities. More than 80 people participated from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. The participants came from a variety of backgrounds, including disabled persons’ organizations (DPOs), election organizations, media groups, and international organizations.
During the conference, participants agreed on the need to support political rights for people with disabilities. They also developed a list of recommendations for the Forum for South Asian Election Management Bodies (FEMBoSA), a network of government organizations that plan and manage elections in South Asian countries.
At the annual FEMBoSA meeting, disability rights representatives from the regional conference spoke with the members of FEMBoSA and encouraged them to support the recommendations. After the members of FEMBoSA discussed the recommendations and the need to support people with disabilities, they then decided to adopt language on disability-inclusive elections in their Colombo Resolution. They also agreed to develop common minimal standards for disability-inclusive elections in all South Asian countries.
To successfully encourage discussions between government agencies, disability rights activists in South Asia kept in mind three important strategies:
1. Speaking with one voice to government officials by agreeing on a list of recommendations
Though it is important for organizations to advocate on local levels, it is also powerful and effective if disability rights organizations come together as one community and agree on a list of recommendations.
If many organizations each have their own list of recommendations that they want the government to use, and especially if those lists do not agree with each other, then it is easy for government agencies to be overwhelmed and decide that it is better to avoid conflict by not using any recommendations.
However, if the disability community – on a local, national, or regional level – decides to create one list of recommendations, that is much easier for government agencies to adopt and use for their work. By meeting with the South Asia government agencies as one group, it was much easier for the government agencies to understand the disability community’s requests.
2. Selecting recommendations that are specific, achievable, and can be measured
The conference participants were careful in choosing their recommendations. They realized that they needed to provide the government agencies with a list of goals that were specific, achievable, and that could be measured. If they did not choose their recommendations wisely, then government agencies could have said they could not support the recommendations.
As an example, one recommendation encouraged government agencies to provide election officials and election workers with disability inclusion training. Instead of saying “disability inclusion should be supported”, this recommendation is a specific action that government agencies can do to support disability inclusion.
It is also an achievable action, because it is a realistic goal that the government agency can work towards over time. There are clear steps that the government can take to provide the training. For example, they can include a section on disability as part of their standard training for election workers.
Lastly, it is an action that can be measured. It will be clear if the recommendation is being achieved. If trainings are not being provided at all, then the government agency is not achieving the goal. If trainings are being provided, then the government agency is working to achieve the goal. There are other things that can be measured, for example, how the training impacts election officials and workers over time.
3. Choosing a good time to present the list of recommendations
One important factor for success is that the disability rights representatives chose a good time to present the list of recommendations so that they were able to speak with several government agencies at one time. They accomplished this in South Asia by hosting the regional conference at the same time as the annual meeting of the Forum of the Election Management Bodies of South Asia (FEMBoSA).
If they had chosen a different time of the year, it would have been harder to be able to speak to all of the government agencies at once. This would have made it more difficult to advocate for the recommendations to be adopted because then each country would have had to communicate with its government agency individually about a regional agreement. This way, government agencies were able to quickly decide whether to adopt the recommendations and confer on the best ways to support disability inclusion as part of their work.
IFES is a global leader in promoting democracy and good governance and supporting the right of all citizens to freely participate in electoral processes. Since 1998, IFES has worked to include persons with disabilities in its work, leading to the creation of www.ElectionAccess.org, a national online clearinghouse of information on disability rights and political participation. IFES created a manual entitled Equal Access: How to Include Persons with Disabilities in Elections and Political Processes, available in ten languages.