Babar lives in Karachi's densely populated area of Soldier Bazaar. Unlike many people in his area, he is not as excited for the elections on February 8. If anything, he is concerned about the location of his polling booth and whether he can even cast his vote.
During the last election, Babar could not cast his vote simply because his designated polling station was situated on the first floor of a building. Confined to a wheelchair due to his physical disability, he had no way of climbing to his polling station and exercising his fundamental rights.
As millions of voters prepare to exercise their right to franchise on February 8, a significant number of voters who are Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) are concerned - like Babar - about the challenges they are likely to encounter in getting to their designated polling booth, thus hampering their ability to exercise their fundamental right to determine their political future.
Babar's experience was echoed by Hussain Ali, a disability rights activist and an election observer during the 2018 elections.
"Being a wheelchair user, I could not cast my vote in the 2018 elections because my polling station was on the first floor in the Gulistan-e-Johar area," he said.
Ali emphasised that lack of adequate facilitation or support, including insufficient mobilisation, limited accessibility and unfavourable attitudes of election staff, all contribute to lower turnouts by PWDs during elections.
As an observer, Ali said he visited multiple polling stations in 2018 and saw many visually impaired individuals get turned away from casting their vote. He explained that the election staff at these polling stations lacked sufficient awareness or sensitivity to permit these PWD assistants of their choice to help them mark the ballot paper. The ballot papers in Pakistan are not printed in a manner which accounts for visually impaired voters.
During the 2018 general elections in Sindh, voters with disabilities and/or elderly voters were allowed to bring assistants at 12,478 polling stations (97%) and were disallowed at 403 polling stations (three percent), according to a report by the Free and Fair Elections Network (FAFEN).
Saima Ali, president of the Disabled Welfare Association - Pakistan (DWA), said that challenges vary for PWDs with visual, hearing and physical disabilities, but the biggest issue is mobility and accessibility.
"If they go to cast their vote, as polling stations are set in government schools or old buildings, the conditions of which are rusty, their wheelchairs don't work or can't go inside," she said. "Due to rules and privacy issues, the ballot boxes cannot be brought to the disabled people outside for them to cast their vote."
Fatima Jafri, a PWD election observer in 2018, highlighted that many "government schools used as polling stations face infrastructural challenges; they lack concrete or cemented floors. This poses difficulties for PWDs and elderly persons due to mobility limitations".
Observing elections at five schools in Nazimabad, she noticed that even if the polling booth was located on the ground floor, government schools often have at least four stairs, making them inaccessible to individuals with mobility challenges unless they have a wheelchair.
The Coalition for Inclusive Pakistan (CIP), a unique coalition for transgender, disabled and women rights activists, found that during their assessment of 448 polling stations by PWD election observers in 2018, almost three-quarters (72.3% of these stations, totalling 324) were physically inaccessible for both PWD observers and voters.
Mohamad Maaz, 24, another Karachi resident, uses a cochlear implant for his hearing impairment. He advocated election authorities create an inclusive voting environment for PWDs.
"We can also create a separate area for those who are hard of hearing, ensuring a quiet space for them. It's important to promote an environment where everyone, regardless of their ability, can exercise their right to vote comfortably," he said.
Jafri noted that the election staff she observed lacked proficiency in official sign language but did try to communicate with hearing-impaired individuals apart from providing assistance to various types of PWDs on Election Day.
Saima Ali said that for the visually impaired, accessibility is a major issue since they cannot see the ballot paper. She recommended printing ballot papers in braille format. "Due to our consultations with the ECP, the information paper detailing information about the elections is now available in braille form," she said, lamenting that the ballot paper is not available in braille, making them susceptible to manipulation by companions.
For the hearing impaired, Saima Ali contended that since their disability is not visible or apparent, "there is a communication barrier as polling staff cannot effectively communicate with them on polling day, and there is an absence of sign language interpreters as well".
Being uncounted is being denied
Data shared by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) shows that the total number of PWDs registered as voters in Pakistan comes to around 520,716 out of an estimated 27 million PWDs in the country. In Punjab, some 259,670 registered voters are recognised as specially-abled, followed by Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) with 153,133, Sindh with 91,735 and Balochistan with 16,178.
One reason for this massive discrepancy in the actual population of PWDs and those registered to vote stems from how they are counted in the census (digital or analogue).
Network of Organizations Working with Persons with Disabilities (NOWPD), a non-profit organisation, highlighted that in official records from the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) and National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA), only 2.38% of the population in the 1998 census and 0.48% in the 2017 census were registered as PWDs.
NOWPDP stresses that the 2023 census, like previous ones, failed to be inclusive towards most PWDs, lacking provisions for communication support services, potentially leading to underreporting or misrepresentation of disability statistics in Pakistan.
Such misrepresentation can significantly impact how different stakeholders and relevant authorities address issues related to the facilitation and inclusiveness of PWDs in elections. The underreporting may result in the insufficient allocation of resources, inadequate policies, and general oversight for accommodations required to ensure the full and equal participation of PWDs in elections.
This was also highlighted in a 2018 report by the Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CDPI), which stated that there is an absence of reliable data due to institutional discrepancies and varied interpretations of disabilities.
Limitations in the national census fail to comprehensively capture the diverse range of disability-related factors and experiences, leading to incomplete insights into the challenges faced by PWDs.
SNICs - another hurdle for PWDs to overcome
NOWPDP, through its Shanakht program, has been instrumental in helping PWDs acquire their Special CNICs - the official document which ensures that PWDs are legally recognised by the state and helps them access special employment quotas, assistive devices, educational benefits, and discounts on transportation services. NOWPDP has helped more than 4,500 people across Sindh obtain the SNICs.
They suggest the process of obtaining these SCNICs is often challenging, time-consuming, and not widely known among PWDs. It can involve multiple visits to different governmental departments, taking up to 12 weeks for completion.
While the organisation's One-Window SCNIC Camps aim to streamline this process and reduce the time required to acquire these cards in a single day, there are still instances where issuance of SCNICs remains pending even after the initial application or token has been received. This delay can potentially affect PWDs' eligibility for accessing the postal ballot facility during elections.
Shoaib Saleem at NOWPDP shared: "Approximately 80 to 100 individuals have obtained their Disability Certificates (DCs) through NOWPDP recently but are yet to receive their SCNICs. It's anticipated that it will be issued within a few weeks."
Postal ballot facility
PWDs can avail of the postal ballot facility to vote from the comfort of their home. ECP fixed January 22, 2024, as the last date for sending in postal ballots.
Some PWDs, however, may be unable to avail of this facility due to a limited understanding of the process.
CIP noted in its preliminary report that although postal balloting is a step in the right direction, disabled voters found the multi-step process "cumbersome, confusing and ineffective" in 2018.
Moreover, postal ballots might not be fully effective for all PWDs due to specific requirements where people with physical disability that prevent their travel to the polling station can vote via postal ballot only if they "hold a National Identity Card with a logo for physical disability issued by NADRA".
The Election Act 2017 and the Election Rules 2017 contain provisions aimed at ensuring the electoral rights of PWDs, aligning with Article 29(a) of the United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).
These provisions facilitate the political inclusion of PWDs in the following ways:
Section 69 of Election Rules 2017 authorises a family member of a voter with physical disabilities, as specified by clause (c) of sub-section (1) of section 93, to get the voter's declaration attested from a Gazetted or Commissioned officer, accompanied by a copy of the voter's National Identity Card indicating their disability logo issued by the National Database and Registration Authority.
Section 74 of Chapter V of Conduct of Election Rules 2017 allows for marking the ballot paper with the assistance of a companion for voters who are totally blind or incapacitated physically. The companion, not being a candidate or candidate's agent, can mark the ballot paper as indicated by the voter. Section 114 of Chapter VII of Conduct of Election Rules 2017 states the same.
Section 48 of the Election Act 2017 requires the Election Commission to implement special measures for registering non-Muslims, persons with disabilities, and transgender citizens in electoral rolls as voters. These measures include coordinated actions with NADRA to expedite the issuance of CNICs for these individuals.
Apart from this, the Elections Act 2017 emphasises the need to make polling stations accessible to PWDs. It mandates the provision of facilities such as ramps and other necessary arrangements to enable their smooth access to polling stations, priority in voting queues to minimise waiting times and ensure their convenience during the voting process. The Act mandates the training of polling staff to assist voters with disabilities, ensuring they receive proper guidance and support while exercising their voting rights.
Measures to facilitate PWDs
In order to address these issues, DWA, as part of the ECP's Gender and Disabilities Electoral Working Group, provides advice and recommendations to ensure an inclusive voting experience for PWDs.
For upcoming general elections, they have recommended the introduction of portable ramps, having at least one wheelchair at each polling station so that complications could be reduced for persons with physical disabilities, training sessions for election staff, ensuring the presence of a sign language interpreter for constituencies where a significant number of PWDs are registered as voters and have offered to conduct accessibility assessments and audits at polling stations.
Abdullah Shah, Deputy Director ECP, said that they have asked their implementing partners, like DWA and Binae Education Foundation, to identify polling stations in Karachi which are inaccessible for PWDs, as well as identify areas where more PWDs are likely to cast votes. "We will ensure wheelchair provision at such polling stations, polling stations on ground floors in such areas, portable ramps where cemented ramps are absent," he said.
Shah also said that although providing a sign-language interpreter will not be possible on election day because they have received no such request, ECP's awareness videos on social media utilise sign language and cater to hearing-impaired individuals.
The ECP and DWA also conducted a mock drill titled "How to Cast a Vote" on the International Day of Persons with Disabilities on December 2, 2023, at the KMC Sports Complex in Karachi. This exercise stimulated a polling day scenario for individuals with disabilities to familiarise themselves with the voting process and get hands-on experience, contributing to their confidence and preparedness for the upcoming elections.
Inclusion and future outlook
In its election manifesto, Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) has mentioned separate counters to be set up at every public place for elderly and disabled citizens, ensuring the provision of special education, training and employment to disabled people.
Anny Marri, a Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) Senator and member of the party's manifesto committee, said: as far as making the process more inclusive for PWDs goes, that depends on each candidate and obviously if they want votes to be cast in their favour, they will make arrangements.
The Pakistan Peoples Party manifesto outlines initiatives for the human rights of PWDs, including measures such as institutionalising data collection, particularly birth registration of children with disabilities at their doorstep, political empowerment, inclusive education with emphasis on girls, formation of Disability Commissions to eliminate infrastructural and attitudinal barriers, job inclusion, accessible websites for persons with hearing and visual impairment to access forms for jobs and admissions in educational institutes, and improved transport as well as simplifying the voter registration process for persons with disabilities.
Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s manifesto prioritises enhancing access for underrepresented groups, pledging to diligently work towards providing increased access to higher education for persons with disabilities. In its commitment to uplifting living standards, PTI emphasises social housing as a fundamental pillar, particularly for the 40% of Pakistanis living in poverty. Within this initiative, special attention is dedicated to addressing the housing needs of the disabled population by providing them with homes with essential infrastructure and amenities on rent.
Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) pledges enhanced accessibility in its manifesto. The party aims to make transportation more inclusive for citizens with disabilities by incorporating universal design principles in both infrastructure and public transit systems. As part of their efforts, PML-N asserted that between 2022 and 2023, they had issued 49,623 Computerised National Identity Cards (CNICs) specifically for disabled persons.
Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) and Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P) have not talked about any commitments or provisions for disabled individuals in their manifestos.
Disability rights activist Ali is hopeful that improvements in arrangements catering to PWDs are anticipated in the 2024 elections. These facilities will include the provision of portable ramps as part of election equipment and a concerted effort to relocate numerous polling stations to ground floors rather than being situated on the first floor.