Last month, I attended the Zero Project Conference at the United Nations Office in Vienna, Austria, which focused on political participation of people with disabilities as well as independent living.
The conference brought together hundreds of actors working for governments, civil society organisations, private sector, disabled people’s organisations, UN agencies and independent electoral commissions from all over the world.
It was my first visit to the annual event, and I found it really insightful and relevant because I work on Sightsavers’ Irish Aid-funded projects on political participation in Cameroon and Senegal. After reflecting on the presentations and debates, and linking this to our own experience in the current ongoing projects in this field, here are my top takeaways.
There is a need for increased collaboration in poorly addressed thematic areas
There are not that many stakeholders involved in supporting political participation of people with disabilities. Most initiatives are focused on inclusive elections; ensuring the representation of people with disabilities (as observers, or enrolled in political parties); and accessibility of polling stations (accessible information on the voting process, electoral code, tactile ballots, ramps, etc). However, inclusive local development, which presupposes active and meaningful involvement of people with disabilities in public life and access to local decision-making instances, is still poorly addressed. There is a need for even greater collaboration between NGOs in order to share lessons learnt and resources, including training manuals, good approaches in mobilising women/youth, etc.
Political participation is the basis of everything
It was really emphasised at this conference that no matter the thematic area (health, education, livelihood), if people with disabilities cannot make their voices heard, they will be systematically excluded from access to services. At most, they might benefit from specific budgets allocated from a charitable perspective. It would make a huge difference if not only their needs, but also their ideas and good initiatives, were considered by decision-makers from the very beginning!
The big gap: supporting self-advocacy and listening to people with intellectual disabilities
People with intellectual disabilities are particularly excluded, even within disability groups. The conference made visible successful and inspiring examples of how people with intellectual disabilities can be involved in political participation. The issues of empowerment and respect of choices were also highlighted in a film involving a couple with Down Syndrome. A few of the lessons from this I would like to integrate better in my work include mapping and involving existing associations to participate in our projects; adapting information in accessible formats in a participatory manner; training facilitators and/or caregivers in supporting self-representation of people with intellectual disabilities; and identifying ways to address the specific discrimination people experience at community and council levels.
Let’s use learning more practically!
I successfully made contact with Light for the World and its Cambodian partner, both of which have been very supportive in sharing resources. Working together with the Sightsavers team in Cameroon, which is implementing our political participation project in four districts, we have already revised our strategy, with a focus on women, youth, and people with intellectual disabilities (some of whom are not able to vote according to the national electoral code). Similar work will be conducted in Senegal.
The conference was very useful and the lessons I have taken away from it will inform my future work. If, like me, you have the chance to go to Vienna and participate in one of the ESSL foundation’s Zero conferences, be prepared to be inspired and energised!