DSQ > Spring 2008, Volume 28, No.2

Introduction

As the Lebanese expression goes, there is no right lost if we keep fighting for it. This paper tells the story of the fight for the right of people with disabilities to vote; while guaranteed under the law in Lebanon, this right is not always within reach. Disability rights activists have long known this to be the case but have lacked the resources and opportunity to work on changing this reality. This predicament changed on the eve of the 2005 governmental election when two organizations, Lebanese Physical Handicapped Union (LPHU)1 and Youth Association of the Blind (YAB) received funding to conduct a non-partisan nation-wide campaign to safeguard and promote the voting rights of people with disabilities.

Both organizations were founded in the early 1980s by people with disabilities in resistance to institutionalization policies and practices that are still the norm in dealing with people with disabilities in Lebanon. Both authors of this article have been involved as allies with the organizations over the years; the second author was a regional coordinator during the "My Right" voting campaign described in this article; while the first author participated as a volunteer team leader on all campaign days, in addition to working as an LPHU staff member on other projects. We rely on this involvement to offer an account of the obstacles faced by the voting rights campaign and some of its eventual accomplishments.

Through this article, we aim to contribute to the still small body of knowledge on the situation of people with disabilities in the Arab region. While not speaking on behalf of the organizations responsible for the voting rights campaign, we feel it important to bring to light the significant work of disability rights activists in this region. As activists we believe in the importance of locating sites of resistance and working with those engaged in ending their own oppression (Shragge, 2003). Authors such as Batavia (2001) have reacted vehemently against seeing people with disabilities as members of an oppressed social group; part of his argument rests on a desire not to further disempower people with disabilities by relegating them to the status of "oppressed." However, by acknowledging that people are not passive "victims" of oppression, we can, as Shragge suggests, recognize and support their acts of resistance. Moreover, this article aims to provide disability rights activists in other regions of the world with insights that may be useful in their own community organizing efforts. While this is in itself an important aim, it becomes even more crucial if we conceive of disability rights groups in Lebanon as part of a global social movement responding to the marginalization of people with disabilities (Cooper, 1999; Hayashi & Okuhira, 2001). Indeed, as can be gleaned from the situation in other parts of the world, Lebanon is by far not the only country where people with disabilities are subject to violations of their basic civic rights.

While there are no published studies on the Lebanese situation, a review of the literature demonstrates the existence of violations and obstacles to participation in many so-called democratic Western nations including those such as the United Kingdom (Barnes & Oliver, 1995), Australia (Cooper, 1999), and the United States (Bérubé, 2003; Schriner, 2002), where the rights of people with disabilities have long been enshrined in the law. These violations and barriers to participation can be tied to several factors including historical and contemporary misrepresentations of people with disabilities (Schriner, 2002). As Bérubé (2003) notes in speaking about the American context, current representations of people with intellectual disabilities as being "feeble-minded" and needing protection have prevented them from exercising their basic civic rights, even with the existence of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In addition to misrepresentations, social exclusion can contribute to a lack of political awareness among people with disabilities, and a dependence on significant others for political information. Kjellberg (2002) notes that in the 1994 Swedish elections, only 31% of people with intellectual disabilities voted, while this figure was 86% for the total Swedish population. Based on her research during the 1998 election period, she maintains that people with disabilities are less likely to vote if they are socially isolated and have limited access to information about public issues. In addition, their choice to exercise their right to vote is greatly influenced by significant others in their environment such as relatives and staff members at group homes or day programs. Other barriers experienced by people with disabilities include lack of accessibility of the voting process. In an examination of "all-mail balloting" in the United States, Hamilton (1988) argues people with disabilities are likely to have their participation negatively affected by inaccessible polling stations. Fourteen years later, Hines (2002) notes that people with disabilities were among other "disenfranchised" social groups kept from full participation in the 2000 presidential elections. Even though the law recognizes the need to have all polling stations be accessible to people with disabilities, people with physical disabilities and visual impairments were unable to vote or lost their right to secret ballot, such as in the case of voters with visual impairments requiring assistance to read the ballot.

On a related note, Schur and Kruse (2000), in their study of voter turnout during the 1992 American presidential elections, found that people with spinal cord injuries were less likely to vote than members of the general population. The authors note that transportation and accessibility are important issues in the voting experience. It is also noteworthy that the difference in voter turnout as compared with the general population is due to unemployed people with spinal cord injuries; those who were employed voted at the same rate as the general population. The authors propose that employment can be an important factor in providing people with disabilities with the financial resources and independence to be able to vote. In addition, being unemployed places a person with a disability at risk of being socially isolated and thus less likely to have the skills and information necessary to participate in the political process.

In short, a review of the situation of people with disabilities demonstrates that they are less likely to vote due to many factors including misrepresentation, social exclusion leading to lack of political awareness, and inaccessibility of the voting process. Of important note is the role that significant others such as relatives, co-workers and staff can play in the decision to vote and in the capacity to carry out this decision. In Lebanon, our work as community activists over the years and more recently on the voting rights campaign has been confronted with many of the same obstacles reported in the literature as well as others unique to the Lebanese context. Through the "My Right" campaign we were able to contribute to addressing some of these obstacles during the 2005 elections, hopefully paving the way for longer term change.

Before describing the specific context of voting in Lebanon and some of the accomplishments of the campaign, a methodological note is in order. The discussion presented in this paper is an "insider account" based on three sources of information that we acquired throughout the campaign. First, we engaged in participant observation that we reflected upon together at the end of each campaign day. Salient points of these discussions were recorded for future reference in a journal. Second, to varying degrees, we each participated and took notes during meetings with other activists throughout the campaign. Of particular relevance is an end-of-campaign meeting at which the main obstacles and accomplishments of the campaign were discussed by the activists. A final source of information supporting the discussion in this paper is media reports of the campaign; we were each involved as media informants and as such were responsible for keeping abreast of media reports.

Background: The context of voting in Lebanon

People with disabilities in Lebanon are estimated to be between 1% and 10% of the total population (Mansour, 2001). Mansour argues that the lower official figure is partly the result of a long history of marginalization and subsequent invisibility of people with disabilities. The higher figure reported by the United Nations and cited by Manosur, is seen by many community organizations as more accurate. It is noteworthy that at the time of writing this paper, there are efforts to develop a more accurate picture of the demographics of disability and people with disabilities in Lebanon; this initiative is being undertaken by the two above-mentioned organizations as well as the Lebanese Down Syndrome Association and other community allies.

Traditionally, the Lebanese government has responded to people with disabilities through a policy of institutionalization. Families that can afford to, or who can receive financial support, typically send their children with disabilities to private care institutions funded in great part by the government. These institutions provide, with varying degrees of consistency, education and vocational training. The work of such institutions has been heavily critiqued, not only in Lebanon, for promoting exclusion (Brousse-Chamichian, Murphy, Makarem & Marji, 2000; Galvin, 2004; Morris, 2001, Smith, 2005). In fact, recent figures demonstrate that people with disabilities are among the social groups in Lebanon facing the highest rates of unemployment and poverty (Central Administration of Statistics, 1997). The situation is similar in other parts of the "Third World", where poverty and disability are inextricably linked (Manderson, 2004).

In 1999, we both participated in a nation-wide social action campaign including a demonstration outside parliament to pressure the Lebanese government to pass Law 220 for the rights of people with disabilities in Lebanon. With its eventual passing in 2000, current policies of exclusion were meant to change. Four years later, we found ourselves taking to the streets again in a reminder to the government that the law had yet to be implemented. This law advocates a policy of inclusion which if translated into practice would mean the divestment of funding from these institutions to organizations and parent associations currently working on projects such as promoting inclusive education and inclusion in the mainstream workforce. The law also struck down any articles of other laws that could be construed as discriminatory towards people with disabilities, including any articles in the general voting law. However, governmental efforts to implement the law have been sluggish due to purported fiscal constraints. Community organizers know that in addition to these constraints, a lack of awareness of the rights of people with disabilities and a lack of importance accorded to these rights are also important factors in delaying implementation.

More specifically in terms of voting, people with disabilities are currently marginalized within a system that heavily relies on family allegiance to political parties. Families in Lebanon are usually aligned with a political party, typically based on their religious sectarian affiliation — there are 18 religious sects in Lebanon. During election periods, these families are solicited by political parties to ensure that they cast their votes in their favor. No means are spared in this regard: bribes of money, food, jobs and other incentives are offered in exchange for the votes of the family members. For example, in the 2005 elections, the family of the second author was offered (and declined) US$100 a vote, and was told that a van would arrange to pick up family members to drive them to the polling stations. Some families who have members with disabilities are offered medical equipment, payment for medical procedures, or other incentives in exchange for votes. Clearly, it is in the best interest of the family to make sure that its members who have disabilities are voting in ways consistent with the family's wishes. On election days — one per administrative region of the country, for a total of five — people arrive at the polling stations with their ballot already in hand, as supplied by the political party they are aligned with.

This situation of political exploitation and manoeuvring is further exacerbated by the low levels of political awareness among many people with disabilities due to a long history of exclusion from mainstream society. Of course, the situation being described here does not apply to all people with disabilities such as those who are already politically active through their work on disability rights. However, described here are some general contextual elements that have contributed to the exclusion of people with disabilities from meaningful participation in civic rights.

Amidst this context of the marginalization of people with disabilities and the existence of an unimplemented law promoting their inclusion in all aspects of life, came the efforts of community organizers bent on making inclusion in civic rights a concrete reality. The reasoning behind this interest is two-fold: first, the long history of activism by disability rights organizations has demonstrated that this is one area rampant with rights violations; second, as long as people with disabilities continue to be excluded from their basic civic rights, they are subject to being marginalized in all other aspects of life.

"My Right" campaign

Based on his research on political beliefs of people with disabilities in New Mexico, Gastil (2000) argues that they tend to be more egalitarian in outlook and to support public programs such as health care, but less likely to feel connected to the political process. The author emphasizes the possibility that greater involvement of people with disabilities in voting could lead to significant changes in public policy. Whether or not people with disabilities are indeed more egalitarian in outlook or could have such a great impact on public policy, one fact remains certain: considering the obstacles and violations mentioned in the previous section, the participation of people with disabilities should no longer be so greatly compromised. Schriner and Shields (1998) argue that in order to address this situation, disability organizations have an important responsibility to mobilize people with disabilities to vote. The "My Right" campaign developed and implemented by LPHU and YAB during the 2005 Lebanese elections provides a concrete example of how disability organizations can assume this responsibility. The campaign was composed of three phases: the first phase began two months before the elections; the second phase lasted for the five-week duration of the elections; and the final phase took place after the end of the elections. Each phase was characterized by a unique set of activities described in more detail below.

The main aim of the first phase was to begin to raise the issue of voting rights to as broad a sector of society as possible, while focusing on decision-makers. During this period, politicians from all of the main parties were contacted and met with in an effort to raise their awareness on disability rights and to gauge their interest in the issues. An attempt was also made to host public meetings with politicians where they would be asked about their views on disability rights and the issue of voting. However, of all the parties contacted only one, the Communist Party, attended the discussion meeting.

Also contacted during this period were members of other NGOs who were also interested in the fairness of the elections. This provided campaign organizers with a venue to air their views on disability rights and to support other organizations willing to promote the right to vote for people with disabilities. In addition to these key players, efforts were made during this phase to contact government officials to notify them of accessibility issues at the polling stations, and to lobby for modifications where needed.

An important component of the first phase included awareness-raising among people with disabilities about their voting rights. Specifically, meetings were held with members of both LPHU and YAB where issues related to voting were discussed. In addition, outreach activities to people with disabilities consisted of home visits by members of both organizations to raise awareness about voting rights and to encourage participation in the upcoming elections. During this time, campaign organizers compiled a list of people requiring accompaniment and transportation to the polling stations.

The second phase of the campaign included preparation and activism during five election days. The main activities during this phase consisted of sending teams of volunteers from LPHU and YAB to staff information and assistance booths at several polling stations. On any given election day, between five and seven polling stations were covered. Volunteers were responsible for speaking to the media, speaking to international and local election observers, and distributing information materials to other voters.

Another important activity consisted of assisting people with disabilities in reaching polling stations by providing transportation and by helping them to overcome accessibility barriers where modifications had not been made by government officials. This activity was not only important to assist people with disabilities to access their right to vote, but was also important to circumvent the influence and interference of political parties. More specifically, political parties know that they can exert undue influence by providing people with disabilities with transportation or accompaniment. By taking on this role of accompaniment, campaign organizers hoped to provide voters with disabilities with the chance to exercise as much of a free vote as possible.

A related activity consisted of timing the actual ballot casting of LPHU and YAB members to draw as much media and political attention as possible. Campaign organizers found out the approximate time of voting and the polling stations of important politicians; they then ensured that an LPHU or YAB member who was registered to vote at that station would vote before that politician — of course with the full consent of this member. In a very concrete manner, people with disabilities could not be ignored as they simply drew attention by virtue of being in the path of an important public figure. At one station where the first author of this article was a team leader, an important member of parliament was approaching the polling station. As he did so, an LPHU member who uses a wheelchair was strategically waiting for this moment to vote. Because the polling station was on the second floor and there was no elevator, he was carried by campaign volunteers ahead of the politician, much to the dismay of this latter who was delayed from voting by someone taking up stairway space! Needless to say, this incident drew media and general public attention.

In addition to the above-mentioned activities, the campaign saw the development of "pilot polling stations" at several locations. These pilot centres consisted of mock polling stations held on the same premises as the regular polling stations. Pilot stations offered visitors the chance to see what it would concretely mean to have a fully accessible voting exercise. Volunteers, including the first author, staffing the stations took the time to explain to people with disabilities, other voters, politicians, and international observers the accessibility features of the station.

The final phase of the campaign took place after the end of the last election day. The main focus during this period was on activities geared towards the continued promotion of disability rights and specifically the right to vote. More contacts were established with government officials for future lobbying to improve accessibility of the voting exercise.

Media presence throughout the campaign was solicited and maintained through various means. First, special meetings were held for media representatives before the elections to alert them to disability issues. Second, several interviews (print, radio, television) were conducted with members of the media. Throughout the campaign, posters, television infomercials and billboards were used to promote the idea of voting rights for people with disabilities.

Obstacles and accomplishments

As noted in the literature from other parts of the world, people with disabilities are yet to be fully included in terms of voting rights. The "My Right" campaign uncovered several obstacles to a free exercise of the right to vote including: lack of physical accessibility of polling stations; lack of awareness of voting rights for people with disabilities; interference by political parties; and pressure from family members.

On a very concrete level, many polling stations were physically inaccessible. One of the accomplishments of the campaign was to successfully lobby the government to remove physical barriers at many of these stations. For example, where voting was to be held on the second floor of a school, polling was moved to the ground floor. However, despite consistent lobbying, many polling stations remained inaccessible with officials promising to correct the situation but failing to come through at the time of voting. Yet, it can be argued that within a context where marginalization has been the norm, even unfulfilled promises are one step in the right direction of recognizing the existence and rights of people with disabilities.

In addition to physical inaccessibility, election officials seemed minimally aware of the voting rights of people with disabilities. An important accomplishment of the campaign was the production and successful distribution of information pamphlets for use by election officials. These pamphlets described how the process of voting can be facilitated at the polling station. For the most part, election officials seemed very cooperative and thankful for the information, even if some resisted the idea of posting this information inside the polling stations.

Another important obstacle concerned interference from political parties. In addition to the usual methods of accompaniment to the polling station, political party representatives accosted people with disabilities. All volunteer team leaders from LPHU and YAB reported that at the polling stations where they were working, representatives of political parties would wait at the door and would approach any person with a disability to offer unsolicited assistance in casting a vote. Needless to say, this assistance came at the cost of voting for the political party of the representative. An important accomplishment of the campaign in this regard was the fact that people with disabilities were offered the option of receiving needed assistance from team volunteers without being expected to vote for a specific political party.

A final important obstacle worth mentioning is the pressure from family members to vote for particular candidates. This particular obstacle to a free vote usually began before an election day and continued throughout the voting exercise. Many people with disabilities contacted in the initial phase of the campaign, as well as many LPHU and YAB members, reported that they had faced pressure at home to vote for a particular party because this or that politician had offered medical or other forms of assistance. Typically, because family members go to the polling station together, this pressure would continue even when casting a ballot. An important accomplishment of the campaign was the raising of awareness among people with disabilities themselves as to their right to vote as they choose. Many people indicated that this year they would vote for the person of their choice. Whether this was what truly happened during the time of voting is beyond the knowledge of the authors. However, what seemed important at the time was the increased awareness that other options were possible.

Other campaign accomplishments became apparent after the end of the elections. One such accomplishment was the heightened profile of disability rights in the media. For several months after the elections, disability issues were present in various forms of media such as print, radio and television. This increased interest was then used by both organizations to advance other issues not limited to voting (e.g. education rights, employment issues, etc.).

Another important accomplishment was the solidification of collaboration with other local NGOs. Participation prior to the elections on organizing meetings held by the Lebanese Association for the Democracy of Elections ensured that the voice of disability rights organizers was heard by a wide spectrum of NGOs represented at the meetings. Such collaborations have a chance to further develop beyond the limited time period of elections.

Also locally, an important accomplishment of the campaign was the increased interest shown by government and political party officials. Following the elections, campaign organizers were contacted by government officials requesting their participation in talks to make the next elections accessible. Similarly, political party officials who were not always available to answer questions and did not attend the all-party meeting during the campaign became available to cooperate with campaign organizers on future elections. Doubtless, the heightened profile of both organizations as a result of the campaign drew the attention of politicians.

On a broader level, a major accomplishment of the campaign was the inclusion of disability rights in the report of international observers. Indeed, the official report of the United Nations election observers listed violations of the voting rights of people with disabilities as the first point. This type of recognition will further enhance the opportunities for disability rights organizations to lobby nationally and internationally for attention and funding for projects and programs promoting disability rights.

Concluding thoughts

This article has provided an insider account of the efforts of two disability rights organizations in promoting voting rights. Several conclusions can be drawn from the information presented here. First, it is important to note the similarities in the obstacles experienced by people with disabilities in a diversity of sociocultural contexts. Much of the obstacles reported in the literature were witnessed in the case of the Lebanese elections. For example, problems of inaccessibility do not seem to be restricted to one country. It would stand to reason that obstacles requiring changes to physical infrastructure (such as walls and stairs) would be easier to eradicate than obstacles resulting from lack of awareness, misconceptions or political manoeuvrings. And yet, these physical obstacles remain alongside others.

Another important conclusion is that the family does play a significant role in influencing voting practices and decisions of people with disabilities. This role takes on added importance in a context such as Lebanese society where people with disabilities are still mostly marginalized and isolated; the only contact for many is their family members. Hence, campaigns targeting voting rights do need to take on work with more than just the person with a disability, thereby addressing influences from this person's circle of significant relations.

At a broader level than the individual or the family, an important conclusion concerns the utility of legislation protecting rights of people with disabilities. While a law does exist in Lebanon, its implementation has not been achieved. As authors in other parts of the world have emphasized, it is unwise to rely on the existence of a law as an end in itself (Harlan & Robert, 1998). In the case of Lebanon, the law promoting the rights of people with disabilities can be relied upon to support the legitimacy of claims for inclusion in civic rights, but cannot at this stage be called upon to enforce inclusion.

Furthermore, it is important to emphasize the long-term and far-reaching impacts of campaigns such as the one described in this article. This campaign can be used to further promote disability rights beyond the narrow scope of the issue of voting. The increased presence of people with disabilities and disability rights in the media and in the public eye can be used by organizations to draw attention to long-term issues such as education and employment rights. Campaign accomplishments and gains can thus be used as leveraging points for further awareness-raising, lobbying and activism.

Finally, campaigns such as the one described in this paper offer a window of opportunity to reach the general public, building an awareness of the existence and rights of people with disabilities. At the end of a long election day in which the accomplishments were less clear and the obstacles ever present, we headed to an internet café seeking solace in iced tea and the digitized words of comfort from friends far away. As we sat tiredly waiting for the computers to boot up, we were told by the owner, a young man we had never met, that the electricity had just returned, our daily reminder that blackouts are not an uncommon feature of the Lebanese landscape. Shying away from small talk, we retreated to our computer screens only to have the owner continue the conversation with other patrons about the difficulties faced today by people with physical disabilities trying to vote at a polling station only accessible by elevators! Our screens no longer captivated our interest as we followed his conversation about an issue he had first heard about today on the radio. Magically, our sore feet and aching heads were rejuvenated with a sense of accomplishment. As we write this story down, we are once again reminded to firmly believe that whether we sit or stand, truly no right is lost if we keep fighting for it.

References

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Endnotes

  1. The name of this organization may seem offensive by current standards, and does not adequately convey the activism of LPHU. The name dates back to 1981 when the organization was founded; the terms used were non-offensive as compared to the other terms in use at the time. Due to bureaucratic reasons that would entail costs, efforts and political obstacles in changing its name, LPHU has opted to keep its name as is.
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Copyright (c) 2008 Samantha Wehbi, Yahya El-Lahib



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