On the 7th June 2017, the EUD attended a public hearing organized by the Study Group SOC/554 called the ‘Right of persons with disabilities to vote in the European Parliament’s elections’ at the European Economic Social Committee (EESC). The Study Group SOC/554 is currently drafting and will publish a report, which will investigate how European Parliament election procedures are determined at the national level and how the needs of persons with various disabilities are taken into consideration. The Study Group SOC/554 organised the event at the EESC to inform civil society about how the work is progressing and to hear opinions from relevant stakeholders regarding the barriers that they and their members encounter during the elections. The EUD participated in the public hearing to ensure that the deaf perspective is included by the Study Group SOC/554 and is integrated into their report.
Research reveals that people with disabilities remain excluded from political participation or that their rights are being limited by legal and physical barriers. The opportunity to actively participate in political life and vote lies at the heart of every democratic society – denying this to people on the grounds of disability constitutes a form of discrimination. For deaf people, many specific barriers exist that significantly limit their active participation in the political decision-making process. Debates, manifestos, campaigns or any other relevant information that is crucial while forming a political decision must be fully accessible through sign language interpretation or subtitling for deaf voters allowing them to make an informed choice and exercise their right to vote effectively.
Helga Stevens, member of the European Parliament, highlighted that the European Parliament in particular as well as its Committee meetings must become fully accessible for deaf persons for them to be able to make an informed choice during the elections. Accessibility to political participation is often understood as the removal of physical barriers while accessing voting stations and ballots, however deaf persons face different barriers: lack of sign language interpretation or subtitling before and during the elections also makes the political process inaccessible. Mark Wheatley added to the discussion, stating that funding is needed to make information fully accessible.
Ioannis Vardakastanis, President of the European Disability Forum, highlighted that the EU and Member States (MSs) are legally obliged to create the necessary conditions that allow full and barrier-free participation in the political decision making process for persons with disabilities. Accessible voting procedures alone are not sufficient – the EU and Member States are under a legal responsibility to ensure full political participation. Political groups are obliged to provide accessible information, accessible debates and accessible rallies for citizens with disabilities to allow them to make informed decisions.
Indeed, as state party to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD), the EU has the obligation to ensure that all persons with disabilities, including deaf persons, enjoy equal recognition before the law (Article 12) and full participation in political life (Article 29). These rights are also protected by Articles 21 (Non-discrimination), 26 (Integration of persons with disabilities), 39 (Right to vote and to stand as a candidate at elections to the European Parliament) and 40 (Right to vote and to stand as a candidate at municipal elections) of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU. The full participation of persons with disabilities in society is also a core element of the European Disability Strategy.
It is crucial to take the deaf perspective into account before and during the election period and make it fully accessible for deaf voters through sign language or subtitling. It is only in this way that deaf people can equally exercise their right to vote in the European Parliament elections and participate in the political decision-making process without discrimination.