I am an able bodied person. Perhaps I don’t appreciate this fact as much as I should. I don’t pause to consider how lucky I am when I climb a flight of stairs in an instant, or step up a curb with no considerable effort. Yet I am conscious of the fact that many of us find difficulty in mundane tasks, due to illness or disability.
To individuals afflicted with conditions of the kind, the basic character of the world that surrounds us, must seem very hostile indeed. Conventional tasks must take the appearance of insurmountable obstacles; a problem compounded and enhanced by the fact that Lebanon in general, is not accessible to persons with special needs. Roads, public transportation, and public spaces are not conceived with that constraint in mind, and privately funded construction projects are not required by law to include wheelchair access in their short list of design priorities.
I write this blog post as the highly anticipated municipal elections take place in Beirut, the Bekaa and Baalbeck-Hermel (and Mount Lebanon today*). It is needless to remind the reader that in a democracy, access to the ballot box is a fundamental right. In effect, it is the right which safeguards all others. Yet very few designated election sites are wheelchair/walker accessible.
In my previous voting experience, I have seen the old, the sick, and the otherwise physically impaired, carried clumsily and awkwardly up many flights of stairs in order to perform their duty as equal citizens of our democracy. Today history repeats itself. Although the crowd is certainly respectful, parting in front of the carried person out of well-deserved esteem, the sight is nonetheless painful.
This begs the questions: what about disabled individuals who do not benefit from familial support or financial means? Must they be at the mercy of the crowd in order to exercise their inalienable right? What about the visually impaired? Is it so hard to print out braille ballot papers?
The right of persons with special needs to run for and vote in elections was enshrined in the 220/2000 law, the 2007 Boutros Commission’s Draft Law25, the 25/2008 Electoral Law26, Enforcement Decree 2214/2009 and the 2010 draft law of Former Interior Minister Ziad Baroud. The latter also issued nine binding circulars to the Muhafizin (governors) and Heads of Municipalities, urging them to apply the law in order to facilitate the voting process and calling on municipalities to ensure the best facilities in this regard. Persons with special needs however are still marginalized and excluded from the election process and their rights are gravely violated, and campaigns to change this reality have mostly fallen on deaf ears.
As a start to an extensive campaign to render every sidewalk and building wheelchair accessible, our government must first provide dignified access to the ballot box, or it is no government at all.
Governing is not about suits and ties and photo ops. It is not about acting the part. True governing means securing the rights of people, all people, especially those with special needs.
Using the words of Hubert H. Humphrey, “it was once said that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”
Beirut, Bekaa, Baalbeck-Hermel: May 8
Mount Lebanon: May 15
South Lebanon, Nabatieh: May 22
North Lebanon, Akkar: May 29