By Morapedi Sibeko

  • Lydia Ramatlo, a visually impaired woman and advocate for people with disabilities (PWD), navigates the election process with determination and a desire for inclusivity, having already voted twice despite the challenges she faces.
  • Ramatlo emphasises the need for better accessibility at polling stations, sharing her experiences to educate others about the modifications required for PWD to cast their votes independently and confidently.
  • With the introduction of the Universal Ballot Template (UBT) and the support of helpful IEC personnel, Ramatlo sees progress but calls for greater awareness and proactive measures to ensure that every voter, regardless of ability, can participate fully in the democratic process.

Election participation is a basic right that guarantees that everyone’s voice is heard in every democratic society. Yet restrictions that many of us might not even think about can frequently prevent People with Disabilities (PWD) from exercising this privilege. South Africans will go to the polls to vote on 29 May 2024. The accessibility of voting locations becomes increasingly important as this important date draws near. 

Ms Lydia Ramatlo (47) is a driven and visually impaired woman who approaches the election process with readiness and desire, having already voted twice. Born in Limpopo, she is now married with two children and is no stranger to managing the difficulties that people with disabilities encounter in society, particularly during elections, as the manager of community development policies. Overall, she has had a positive experience voting for herself.

The 47-year-old carefully researches the candidates, parties, and issues on the ballot before going to the polls. Equipped with this understanding, she feels capable of making wise decisions. Ramatlo is given the option to skip the line at her neighbourhood voting location because of her disability. However, she gracefully rejects it, preferring not to pass up the opportunity to interact with the community in the democratic process and network with other voters.

The electoral process has not been without its difficulties for this mother of two. She frequently has to clarify the function of the person holding her hand, who acts as her guide, because she is a blind voter. Some people are initially confused about the guide’s intent, which is why Ramatlo takes her time to explain her circumstances and the help she needs.

Ramatlo, however, sees these explanations as opportunities to spread awareness about disability rather than as burdensome. She takes great pleasure in enlightening people about her condition and the modifications required for her to cast a complete ballot. By sharing her stories, she advocates for herself and fosters inclusivity and compassion for all people with disabilities. Ramatlo hopes to dismantle obstacles and promote an inclusive society through these exchanges.

Through her experience at the voting place, Lydia Ramatlo has discovered substantial physical obstacles that impede her capacity to cast an impartial vote. A major obstacle she encounters is the small area in the voting booth, particularly with her guide present. She further notes that the booth’s design does not accommodate wheelchairs, which further prevents voters with mobility issues from fully engaging in the political process.  

The absence of disclosure regarding Ramatlo’s disability status during the voter registration procedure is another issue that she brings up. Election authorities might not know about her special needs when she gets to the polls if there is no note about them in the voter record. According to Ramatlo, this would make it easier to prepare and assist voters with disabilities before election day if there was a disability indicator in the register.  

These physical obstacles serve as a stark reminder of the essential need to make polling places more accessible so that every voter, regardless of ability, may utilise their democratic right to vote freely and with dignity. Election authorities can develop a more accessible electoral process that meets the various requirements of voters with disabilities by addressing these issues.

The Universal Ballot Template (UBT), available for use by those with disabilities in the upcoming election, is something that Ramatlo is aware of. She views the implementation of the UBT as a beneficial step towards improving accessibility for voters with disabilities.

Generally, Ramatlo has found the IEC personnel at the polls to be cordial and helpful. She is grateful for their efforts in ensuring that every voter can easily navigate and participate in the voting process. However, Ramatlo points out that there are times when IEC personnel might not fully comprehend her impairment and may inquire about her needs.

According to The Electoral Commission (IEC) website, in collaboration with the South African National Council for the Blind (SANCB), the IEC has created the Universal Ballot Template (UBT) as a voting tool to help people with special needs and disabilities cast an independent, confidential ballot during elections.  Blind and partially sighted people, low vision users, dyslexic people, the elderly, those with low literacy, and individuals with motor and neurological problems that make it difficult to use a steady hand can all utilise the UBT.  When a voter needs assistance casting their ballot, the UBT can be used in a variety of elections, such as local, provincial, and national elections as well as by-elections.

Ramatlo provides other PWD with a potent message of encouragement regarding the significance of voting and community integration. She highlights the importance of proactive education and boldness. Ramatlo says, “As PWD, we need to be proactive and not give up on voting. We have a responsibility to inform and raise awareness among others of our needs and impairments”. She further indicated, “I really think that most people wish to be of assistance rather than cause us harm. We just have to tell them how they can help us in the most efficient way.  We must remember that integration must begin with us. We contribute to a more inclusive society where all individuals can fully engage in the democratic process by being proactive and transparent about our requirements.”

It is critical that PWD have a voice, whatever the obstacles. Each person’s vote has great power and the ability to create a society that is more inclusive.

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