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Online resource to boost access to elections and politics

An online resource to boost access to elections and politics by people with disabilities is to be launched next month by the International Foundation For Electoral Systems (IFES), a non-profit based in Washington DC, E-Access Bulletin has learned.

IFES works internationally to promote access to democracy by all groups including people with disabilities, with funding largely from government agencies in the US, UK, Canada and Australia. Its work is aimed at many groups including governments, election management agencies, civil society groups, academics, lawyers, disability groups and people with disabilities.

The new online resource will be based on an overhaul of the foundation’s website ElectionAccess.org, IFES access and inclusion specialist Virginia Atkinson told E-Access Bulletin.

It will include an introduction to disability rights aimed at election management bodies and observer groups, giving examples of inclusive practice such as accessible voter education

“In many countries they don’t think at all about access to elections for people for disabilities”, Atkinson said. “Or maybe they build a wheelchair ramp, but they don’t think about other issues such as accessible voter education, websites or voting machines.”

Materials will include good practice examples such as YouTube videos, images or brochures and posters from other countries, as well as excerpts from relevant laws on election access.

“We are hoping the website will be used as an advocacy tool to create peer pressure, and help change discriminatory laws”, she said. “It will be the only site where all this information is collected in one place.”

Other aspects of the foundation’s current disability rights work includes a major project in South East Asia working with international teams of election observers, Atkinson said. “Many observer teams do not include people with disabilities, and then don’t include questions relating to disability access in their work”, she said.

Lib Dems are first to make digital access election pledge

A pledge to review relevant laws, guidelines and standards on access to digital goods and services to ensure fair access by disabled and older people has become the official policy of the UK’s Liberal Democrats in the run-up to next year’s general election.

The pledge came as an amendment to the party’s equalities policy paper “Expanding opportunity, unlocking potential” which was submitted to the party’s autumn conference for approval earlier this month.

The party has now promised, if elected to govern or as part of a new coalition government subject to negotiation, to conduct “a review of anti-discrimination law and of existing laws, guidelines and standards on access to digital goods and services to ensure they are fit for the modern age and so that, in particular, people with disabilities and older people have fair access to digital public services, the digital economy and the workplace”.

The amendment was moved by Mark Pack, Editor of Liberal Democrat Newswire, on behalf of One Voice for Accessible ICT Coalition, which is campaigning for all the main UK political parties to pledge similar action ahead of the 2015 elections. MPs and policymakers in the Labour and Conservative parties are currently considering making similar undertakings.

One Voice, an umbrella group of charities, businesses and other organisations pushing for better digital accessibility across society, has called for the review in light of poor legal enforcement of existing laws, rules and guidelines for accessibility of websites, mobile apps and other digital goods and services across the public and private sectors.

Accessible elections in Canada: Declaration of independence

In late 2013 the Canadian national elections agency Elections Canada formed an Advisory Group on Disability Issues, and I was invited to be a member. Initiatives the agency is working on include ensuring election staff are trained to meet the needs of voters with a disability; developing a Braille template to help Blind and partially-sighted voters; ensuring that voters with a disability can vote more independently and with greater privacy; and monitoring progress and how initiatives are being implemented.

This month, citizens in Toronto tested out some of these principles as they made a trip to the polls – their third in about five months – to vote for a new mayor; their local councillor; and a school board trustee in their area.

This time however, things were quite a bit different for voters with disabilities, as we were able to use a new “voter access terminal” allowing people with a disability to vote independently.

As a Blind voter, I was extremely excited about this new development as it gave me the opportunity to take my time when voting and I was able to do it without having to depend on a returning officer to help me.

I was able to take my headphones along and plug them into the terminal’s jack. There were several well defined buttons that were easy to distinguish, enabling one to review the list of names for each category; make repeated reviews; select a candidate for each position; and confirm one’s choice.

So in short, I was able to sit in front of this new voter access machine, fetch a list of candidates, make my choice from this list and then submit my choice. I also had the choice not to vote for anyone if I so chose.

The voice on this terminal was extremely clear and distinct and the beauty about it all is that I as a blind person was able to vote in private without anyone knowing whom I have voted for and at the end of it all I was able to remove my own ballot from the terminal’s output tray and place it myself into the ballot box.

Easy as anything, and a terrific invention: now let us see if this terminal will be able to make its way up the ladder to provincial and federal elections. Some time during the course of 2015, Canada will once more be going to the polls to elect a new federal government, and Elections Canada has already indicated that we can look forward to some important changes when it comes to improved accessibility for these elections as well.

I believe that if countries are truly serious about wanting persons with disabilities to be an active part of their voting population then it is vitally important for meaningful dialogue to take place between the governmental body in charge of the running of elections and a representative segment of organisations for and of those with disabilities. We should never assume that governments would naturally know how to proceed in a matter such as this and it is up to voters with disabilities to speak up in a meaningful way.

NOTE: Donna Jodhan is an accessibility and special needs business consultant and author.

EU elections ‘inaccessible for many disabled citizens’

“Inaccessible and cumbersome administrative processes” including inaccessible websites are preventing people with disabilities in Europe from voting in elections, according to a new report by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), an EU advisory research body.

The report, published this month, examined how well the political rights of persons with disabilities are being upheld across Europe, and found significant barriers exist to the exercise of these rights. “Gaps between the promise of law and policy and their actual implementation – for example in the form of inaccessible polling stations or websites – persist”, it says.

Information on elections remains largely inaccessible to persons with disabilities, the report says, and official voting information websites in most EU member states do not appear to meet the minimum accepted standard for website accessibility, the international Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0.

In a move linked to publication of the FRA report, the European Disability Forum (EDF) urged EU member states to remove restrictions that were preventing persons with disabilities from voting in the run-up to the recent European Parliament elections.

The forum, an independent international campaign group, also called on those European citizens with disabilities that were able to vote to do so, and exert their influence. The group published its own policy manifesto, “The key priorities of the disability movement”, aimed at political parties across Europe. These include making goods and services accessible for all, through implementing the proposed EU directive on the accessibility of public websites.

Joysticks and 3-D printing among accessible election prototypes

Voting with joysticks and 3-D printed accessible cases for tablet computers housing voting systems are among innovations presented in a new report on making elections more accessible for people with disabilities published this month by the US Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF).

“Innovations for accessible elections” assesses several years of ITIF research and development projects.

US elections make use of a range of electronic voting systems including touch-screen devices and although US law requires accessible alternatives to be offered such as audio, and tactile keys, many voters with disabilities still experience problems using these systems and with voting in general, the report finds.

As many as 47 million US citizens (almost one in four of the voting age population) face barriers to voting in person due to inaccessible devices, it says. Problems include a lack of accessible information about polling place locations; poll workers who do not recognise the needs of people with disabilities; electronic voting systems not set up for audio ballots; and keypads with confusing or unusual layouts and keys that are hard to identify by feel.

Recent innovation projects by ITIF with partners including the US Election Assistance Commission and the social innovation collaboration platform OpenIDEO have led to a range of ideas and prototypes to try to solve these problems.

They include a ballot designed for use on any device, codenamed the “Anywhere Ballot”, presenting information in a clear reading order, at the place on the page or screen where the voter is already focused. Other work investigated use of a “smart joystick” as a universal voting control, after testing found the device can help individuals with a wide range of dexterity impairments.

Following these projects Los Angeles County, the most populous voting area in the US with almost 10 million residents, is using the Anywhere Ballot as the basis of its ballot redesign and is considering including a joystick as the tactile controller, the report says.

A voting system designed to be navigated using only two buttons with audio prompts, codenamed the “EZ Ballot”, was another winner in an OpenIDEO voting challenge; as was an iPad case with additional accessibility features designed to enhance voting applications, such as tactile switches and a built-in stand to adjust the angle of the screen. The design for the accessible iPad case is now available online (download here as compressed Zip file ) and can be built with a 3D printer, the report says.

Ideas such as these have shown promising results but with technology and election processes always changing, access work will always need to continue alongside, the report finds.

“While most elections are more accessible today than in years past, more progress is needed… [but] unfortunately, there is no simple solution”, it says. “Creating accessible elections will require sustained research and funding to continue designing new technologies and processes, evaluating them in the field, and training election officials to use them.”