Bishop Ancelmo Magaya
People living with disabilities feel not enough is being done to mainstream their participation in elections and other democratic processes with government and opposition parties lacking genuine commitment to advance the democratic aspirations of the marginalised people, TellZim News has learnt.
The constitution provides for equal participation in civic duties by all eligible citizens and goes on, in Chapter 2 Section 22, to obligate government 'to consider the specific requirements of persons with all forms of disability as one of the priorities in development plans' as well as to 'encourage the use and development of forms of communication suitable for persons with physical or mental disabilities'.
These constitutional requirements, people living with disabilities say, are not being observed as the preoccupation of politicians seems to be about winning, from fully-bodied people only, the mandate to govern.
"It is very unfortunate that issues to do with people living with disabilities are prioritised neither in national government policy formulation nor in the mainstream media and public discourse. We do have constitutional safeguards to protect the rights of the disabled but there is no commitment to enforce that," says Bishop Ancelmo Magaya of the Zimbabwe Divine Destiny (ZDD).
Himself being visually impaired, Bishop Magaya says there are no measures that have been put in place to guarantee the privacy of blind people when they cast their votes.
"You have to go in there with somebody who will put the mark on your behalf and you can do nothing to make sure that they have respected your choice but to only put your faith in that person that they will not distort your selection.
"Why don't we have a provision for Braille ballot papers so that anybody who is blind can also say, 'My vote is my secret' and why don't we have special facilities for people on wheelchairs?" Bishop Magaya says.
He is also convinced things can only get better if more people are trained in Braille and sign language competencies. This would, however, require greater official commitment towards introducing more people to Braille and Sign language just as much as there is a fervent enthusiasm that exists towards making more people learn, for instance, the Chinese language.
In the recent Bikita West parliamentary by-election, some deaf people who had come to vote at some polling stations encountered huge problems as nobody knew how to effectively communicate with them.
At Bikita Fashu polling station for example, Zimbabwe Election Commission (ZEC) officials had a torrid time trying to give explanation to a deaf person who turned up to cast his vote since there was no one who could understand Sign language.
Ironically, Sign Language is among the country's 16 languages recognised in the Constitution of Zimbabwe.
Social activist, Agnes Chindimba who participated in the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) under the 2016 Mandela Washington Fellowship agrees with Bishop Magaya and sees the challenges of people living with disabilities as multi-pronged, requiring specified responses.
"The problems that disabled people deal with at polling stations differ according to disability, for instance if you are visually-impaired, you have no privacy because someone has to assist you to vote, meaning your vote can be manipulated," says Chindimba.
Being deaf herself, Chindimba regards the quest by the disabled to get fully involved in the democratic processes as an uphill struggle.
"If you are deaf, you struggle to understand things as there are usually no interpreters. This goes even to the campaigning period. I would want the person I would be giving my vote to involve me in his/her campaigns by providing interpretation services at rallies so that I can make an informed decision.
"Failure to provide special or priority desks for disabled people on polling day is also a problem because many disabled people hate the shoving that sometimes happen at polling stations whereby the none-disabled will shove and pull to vote first and disregard disabled people like those in wheelchairs.
"When violence breaks out, disabled people are the most affected because they can't run like everyone else and if you are deaf, you wouldn't know what is going on until it is too late to save oneself.
"Most people living with disabilities especially in rural areas are never considered as observers or voting officers, something which is very unfair. If they are considered, they would be able to help fellow disabled voters where necessary," says Chindimba.
Simbarashe Makazhe, a disabled part 4:2 student pursuing an Honours in Psychology degree with the Zimbabwe Open University (ZOU), feels there is an inherent disregard for the needs of the disabled people in all facets of life.
"It doesn't begin and end at election time or in electoral processes; rather, there is often very little, if any, priority given to the evening of odds that disabled people have to deal with every day, be it at home, at work, at school and in democratic systems," says Makazhe.
"We need ramps for wheelchairs at polling stations. ZEC (Zimbabwe Electoral Commission) personnel must be conversant with sign language. They must partner civic organisations to reach out to disabled people in rural areas.
"It would also be helpful if BVR (Biometric Voter Registration) facilities are made friendly to visually impaired people.
"We have a fairly good constitution, yes, but what is a constitution without favourable commitment from those with the influence and power to change things?" quips Makazhe.
The Zimbabwe Electoral Support Network (ZESN) national director, Rindai Chipfunde Vava is unhappy that authorities have not yet key information regarding the mapping of polling stations, a situation that has made it difficult to gauge how people living with disabilities will be affected.
"The mapping criteria of the polling stations has not been availed save for reports that the ZEC is working with councils and traditional leaders to determine boundaries.
"As such, it is difficult to say if the process is taking into consideration the needs of people living with disabilities," said Chipfunde - Vava.
She also criticised ZEC for the lack of clarity regarding the need for Braille material to cater for people with visual impairments.
"ZESN calls upon ZEC to consult with organisations that represent people living with disabilities to ensure that the polling stations are set up in public places that cater for their needs," says Chipfunde Vava.politics,local