Marble Shangwa Vengai Kurunzirwa
The Biometric Voter Registration (BVR) process has been praised by many as the ultimate answer to the country’s perennial electoral problems originating from a discredited voters’ role which was being used all along.
While the BVR as a system is good, people with disabilities have criticised the process of its implementation saying it is not friendly to them.
Complaints raised by people with disabilities or organisations that represent their interests include lack of mechanisms that support the easy registration of those, for example, who are blind as well as those who are speech impaired.
Attempts to get exact figures of people with disabilities who have managed to register as voters so far were unsuccessful with the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) chief inspector Jane Chigidji saying she was not at liberty to comment because the elections body was still collating and uploading the data.
It is however understood that the number of people with disabilities who have registered in the ongoing exercise is far below the national average of any other demographic group.
When one goes to the registration centre, he/she is given a VR1 form to fill personal information about themselves. The form has a section that allows people with disabilities to state the nature of their disability.
That, sources in Zec say, will enable the electoral body to meet the special needs of people with disabilities on election day for example by providing adjustable voting booths that are convenient to those who use wheelchairs.
Biometrics also allows amputees who have lost both their arms in accidents or who are born with such disabilities to register to vote because the system is not dependent on fingerprints alone, but on photographs and other exterior biological features of a person too.
Lincoln Matongo, a Sign Language teacher at Morgan Zintec Collage in Harare said he did not have many problems registering to vote because he can lip-read.
Lip-reading is a technique of understanding speech by visually interpreting the movements of the lips, face and tongue when normal sound is not available or cannot be heard.
“I am quite fortunate because I can lip-read so I did not face any challenges when I went to register to vote but there are others who are in a less fortunate situation such that they find the registration process cumbersome and not friendly to them,” said Matongo.
He said his own wife had not yet registered to vote because she feared that the personnel manning the registration centres will not be able to understand her.
“She cannot lip-read so she is afraid she will face communication challenges if she goes to register to vote. I understand those who do the registration process are either scantily equipped or not equipped at all to deal with people with speech and hearing difficulties. Most people in our country cannot use Sign Language,” said Matongo.
Tapiwa Tsikai, an activist who advocates for the rights of people with disabilities, said BVR is not fully accessible to people with disabilities and much still needed to be done to ensure that an important section of the population is not left behind.
“The BVR, like others other systems and processes in our society, perpetuates the existing flaws we have in our country because not all centres have ramps and wide doors to improve their accessibility to people using wheelchairs, crutches and others.
“All systems and processes in the country are never designed with people with disabilities in mind. In most cases, issues of disabilities are only given secondary thoughts and they never form the basis of any initial planning process.
“It is also difficult for people to communicate because most of the people doing the registration work do not understand Sign Language. How then can we possibly say BVR is friendly to us? Very few people with disabilities have managed to register and my worry is that these citizens, who form 15 percent of the population, are being let down in this critical exercise,” said Tsikai.
He also criticised authorities for not printing material on BVR in Braille, saying many potential registrants are being left out because voter education information is accessible mostly to people who can see printed text.
This was echoed by Masvingo provincial youth spokesperson for the National Council for the Disabled Persons in Zimbabwe Vengai Kurunzirwa who said lack of information in Braille was perhaps the biggest error of omission on the part of Zec.
“We held a meeting with local Zec officials and members of our community raised a number of issues including the prohibitive distances that some of our people have to travel to get to the registration centres. Many people said they would prefer mobile registration booths serving people in all residential areas.
“It was, however, the issue of the lack of Braille reading material that disappointed may people. As you may know, the voting cycle is incomplete without adequate voter education and what it means is that the visually-impaired people are getting a raw deal,” said Kurunzirwa.
He also said complaints about the lack of Sign Language capacity at registration centres continue to recur although Zec promised to engage the Henry Murray School for the Deaf at Morgenster Mission to help ease communication challenges between registration officials and speech-impaired prospective registrants.
Others complained that although Zec was heavily investing in its information and publicity drive on TV, no advert specially designed for people with disabilities by people with disabilities had ever been seen on national television.
Zec is understood to be planning to flight the first TV advert on BVR for people with disabilities thanks to sustained lobbying from such civic groups as Deaf Zimbabwe Trust (DZT).
Marble Shangwa, another disability activist based in Masvingo said she was concerned with the ease or lack thereof with which people with disabilities are able to register to vote.
She said she was particularly worried about deaf people who have not had the opportunity to learn Sign Language because theirs is probably the most difficult position.
“People tend to believe that when you have somebody who is proficient in Sign Language, then all the problems of every deaf person has disappeared. That is a misconception because we also have illiterate deaf people; those who have not had a chance to study Sign language.
“Theirs is a predicament we would like the government to pay special attention to by making sure that all deaf children are taught the language so that they don’t suffer a double disadvantage. Being born deaf puts a child at a disadvantage and being denied the chance to learn because of poverty or lack of facilities increases the problem since there would no longer be any formal language of communication with whoever the child meets even later in life as an adult who should enjoy his/her rights like everybody else. There are indeed schools that teach children with those challenges but they are few and expensive,” said Shangwa.
Her opinion comes after some reports that Zec is finding it extra-ordinarily hard to help such people register to vote even when Sign Language experts are available.
“That is a big challenge for us. There are some voluntary organisations that are seconding their personnel to come and improve communication between deaf people who want to register and our own registration officials. The problem comes when you have those who can neither write nor use Sign Language. We have encountered many situations of that nature and, unfortunately, many of the prospective registrants were not successful,” said one Zec official who preferred not to be named.local