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Prejudice at the Polling Booth: Disabled Indonesians Face Barriers in Voting

April 9, 2014

Millions of Indonesians voted in legislative elections on Wednesday, their ink-stained fingers marking another important moment in the consolidation of Indonesian democracy. Sixteen years after the fall of the Suharto regime, elections are largely considered free and fair, and while results are still being counted, most citizens are confident that parties will accept electoral results in this election. But despite these advancements, Indonesia has still not been able to ensure that all citizens are able to exercise their right to vote in its maturing democracy.

was finding a corruption-free candidate to support. But for many citizens with disabilities in the country, just getting to the polling booth was a struggle. Photo/Tim Mann

When Indonesian voters went to the polls yesterday, by many accounts their main concern was finding a corruption-free candidate to support. But for many citizens with disabilities in the country, just getting to the polling booth was a struggle. Photo/Tim Mann

When Indonesian voters went to the polls yesterday, by many accounts their main concern was finding a corruption-free candidate to support. But for many citizens with disabilities in the country, just getting to the polling booth was a struggle. And negotiating physical barriers is only part of the battle. Disabled voters also face deeply entrenched prejudice, stereotyping, and stigmatization that pose obstacles to their ability to participate fully in society.

In Indonesian vernacular, disabled people are commonly described as cacat, literally flawed, or defective. Disability advocates have encouraged use of the term difabel, a distinctly Indonesian portmanteau derived from the English, “differently abled,” but the term is still not in widespread use.

Muhammad Joni Yulianto, 34, is the director of SIGAB, a disabled people’s organization based in Yogyakarta. He says a deep-seated culture of shame in Indonesia means people with disabilities are often isolated. “Cultural barriers mean many people with disabilities are hidden by their families,” Joni said. “They are not allowed to go outside and are prevented from joining disabled people’s organizations that can increase their participation.” They are discouraged from leading a normal life and face significant barriers to education and employment, and many experience extreme poverty. Their right to vote is rarely a consideration.

Data on the number of Indonesians living with disability is limited and inconsistent. The Ministry of Social Affairs estimated that in 2009, there were just over three million people in Indonesia living with disabilities, including the blind, people with hearing and speaking impairments, those with mobility impairments, and people with mental health conditions, in Indonesia in 2009. This is an absurd figure given Indonesia’s massive population and the mutually reinforcing nature of disability and poverty. The World Health Organization offers a more realistic figure of 15 percent, or about 35 million Indonesians. For such a significant population, there have been few efforts to reach out to voters with disabilities.

The Asia Foundation and Polling Center recently conducted a survey of 2,760 voters across six provinces. The survey oversampled disabled voters by interviewing 188 disabled respondents providing one of the only profiles of disabled voters’ views on and understandings of democracy and the electoral process. While a small sample, the survey showed that stigma still runs deep.

More than three quarters of all respondents said they would not vote for a candidate with a disability, while just under 37 percent of the respondents with disabilities said that they would be willing to vote for a disabled candidate. The two most common reasons given for not wanting to select a disabled candidate were: because there are plenty of other “healthy” candidates, and because the candidate would not be able to carry out his or her duties because of physical limitations.

Despite significant barriers to civic participation, the survey found Indonesian voters with disabilities remained enthusiastic about democracy and the forthcoming elections. There was overwhelming support for the legislative and presidential elections, with more than 90 percent of respondents considering them important or very important. About two-thirds (67.6 percent) said they would feel like they were missing out if they did not get the opportunity to vote.

On the face of it, Indonesian law is supportive of the rights of people with disabilities to enjoy this opportunity. In 2011, the Indonesian government ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which guarantees participation in political life for people with disabilities. The Indonesian General Elections Commission (KPU) has published technical guidelines that include stipulations on electoral access, including instructions on the design of polling stations and the provision of assistance such as braille templates.

But the promise of these progressive guidelines remains unfulfilled. And not only in isolated regional areas. Polling station officials rarely receive sufficient training on the needs of people with disabilities on election day. Local election monitoring, which was conducted by JPPR as part of the AGENDA program in partnership with PPUA Penca and PPDI, in five locations during 2011 and 2012 found that nearly half of the polling stations monitored were not suitable for people with a mobility impairment. Doors were not wide enough, ramps were not provided, the ballot box was too high for people using wheelchairs, braille templates were not available, or officials were not familiar with how to use them and sometimes resorted to providing assistance, compromising confidentiality. At a polling station during last year’s East Java gubernatorial election, Asia Foundation staff observed a braille template being used to guide the nail for all voters (in Indonesia ballot papers are punctured with a nail to indicate a valid vote), effectively destroying the template. At a separate polling station, when a blind person came to vote, it was considered such a novelty that a crowd of officials and other electors gathered around the polling booth to watch how he voted. Early monitoring results from Wednesday’s elections on current access for the disabled suggest little has changed this time around.

In yesterday’s vote, the KPU only provided braille templates for the Regional Representative Council (DPD) elections, saying that technical issues relating to font size meant it would not be possible to provide templates for the Legislative (DPR) and other regional elections. When braille templates are not provided, or voters cannot read braille, voters can ask to be accompanied by a trusted person of their choosing. But a 2013 KPU Regulation says that the voting procedure must be witnessed by a polling station official (KPPS), which then compromises the secrecy of the vote.

Given these challenges, it is not surprising that electoral participation rates of people with disabilities are substantially lower than the general population. It will be some time before an accurate estimate of participation rates of people with disabilities in the 2014 legislative elections are released. Just over half (58 percent) of those with disabilities who participated in The Asia Foundation survey said they voted in the 2009 Parliamentary (DPR) elections, and 65.4 percent said they voted in the last presidential election. This is more than 10 percent lower than official participation figures for the general population.

Improved electoral participation of people with disabilities will require addressing these barriers. Despite a few deficiencies, KPU regulations provide a sound legal framework for guaranteeing the electoral rights of people with disabilities. The commission could take the lead by improving access to its own headquarters, which currently lacks a wheelchair-friendly entrance. Further training of polling station officials would also help to bridge the chasm between policy and implementation. The KPU could also offer more inclusive voter education strategies, such as providing information in braille, or supporting television announcements using sign language. Although the KPU has done a poor job of this so far, it has time to improve voter education for the presidential elections.

Recognizing the stigma that hampers electoral participation, disabled people’s organizations have focused on voter education, seeking to inform people with disabilities about their electoral rights and empower them to speak out when their rights are denied. But broader civil society could do more to include people living with disabilities in its activities, and provide messages and information targeted toward people with disabilities. For example, the nation’s largest election network, JPPR, could include disabled people’s organizations as members, and get them involved in its observation activities.

It is important to recognize there is a growing awareness of the electoral rights of people with disabilities. But tackling the stigma that underpins issues of access is a formidable and long-term task. The legislative elections might have passed, but there are still three months before the presidential polls on July 9. Time is running out to ensure that Indonesian voters with disabilities have the information and the access to participate in Indonesian democracy. They are eager to do so.

This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in Indonesia’s weekly Tempo Magazine.

Tim Mann is a program officer in The Asia Foundation’s Indonesia office. He can be reached at tim.mann@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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