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Over the last week, Europeans voted in their representatives to the European Parliament, the European Union’s only directly elected body. Although the European elections should have been a massive exercise in democracy with 400 million people eligible to vote across 28 countries, the rate of absenteeism was rather high at an average of 57 percent across the EU. While the reasons for low participation vary widely, the barriers to political participation for people with disabilities receive little mention.

The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) recently did just that. The results of its comprehensive survey, which assesses the political participation of people with disabilities within the EU, shows that while there are significant differences between member states, considerable obstacles still need to be overcome.

It is not just a lack of physical accessibility of polling stations that prevents many people with disabilities from making their voice heard.

People with disabilities in Europe face other hurdles when voting as well. FRA’s survey found that in 11 EU member states, only some television broadcasts that provide instructions on voting or information on candidates provide sign language interpretation. When it comes to audio description of programs (closed captions), it drops to five member states. Yet public service announcements on the elections and information on candidates are paramount to making an informed choice.

Even more restrictive, in 15 EU countries, people with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities under legal guardianship are stripped of their right to vote. Only seven states explicitly guarantee the right to vote for all persons with disabilities. In other EU member states, such as Hungary, the right to vote is conditional on a case-by-case evaluation by judges.

However, there are some positive stories too. This year, Chantal, a French woman with a physical disability who volunteers with Jaccede, a nonprofit for accessibility, had no problem voting in Paris. This is a big improvement from previous years, when the ballot box table was too high for Chantal, in her wheelchair, to reach.

In Croatia and Latvia, the automatic prohibition on people deprived of their legal capacity exercising their right to vote has recently been abolished. Elsewhere, electoral candidates are starting to make their websites accessible to blind people, or to translate their campaign spots into sign language. And everywhere, people with disabilities are fighting for their right to political participation.

Europe cannot claim to be a true union between peoples unless it includes all. The active participation of people with disabilities in the political process is essential to end the barriers they face every day.


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