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LEBANON: Improving access to polling stations for the disabled

The last time Danny Abu Haidar participated in Lebanon's democratic process, the experience left him feeling unable to vote independently.

But it was not political bribery or sectarian pressures that affected Haidar on the day of the 2007 Beirut by-election, but the simple, practical matter of physical access.

"When I arrived at the polling station I was not allowed to park my car outside," said Haidar, a wheelchair user. "I had to park my car 150 metres away and then get people to assist me to the polling station."

On arriving to cast his vote, Haidar discovered the polling station was on the second floor of the building, meaning he needed two men to carry him and his wheelchair up the stairs.

There was one final indignity waiting for him at the top, as he attempted to fill out his ballot paper: "The table was too high for me to be able to write the names of the people I wanted to vote for."

As one of Lebanon's huge community of disabled people, Haidar's rights to equal access to work, education, healthcare and the electoral process are meant to be guaranteed under the country's disability law.

However, campaigners say the disabled remain largely marginalised, due in part to the fact that no official survey of their numbers has ever been carried out.

A study by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in 1990, just after the end of the ruinous 15-year civil war, estimated that one in 10 Lebanese - up to 300,000 people - were disabled. Yet today the Ministry of Social Affairs says it has registered just 70,000 people for official disability cards.

In a country that has suffered decades of war and occupation, bombings, insurgency and civil violence, and where some areas remain littered with unexploded ordnance, the actual disabled figure is unclear.

Government decree

Now, for the first time, Lebanon's disabled community has had its right to equal access to the electoral process specifically recognised in a government decree, issued in January by Interior Minister Ziad Baroud.

"Lebanon has a lot to do before the accessibility of polling stations reaches international standards," said Baroud. "I realise that access is not the only issue when it comes to the disabled being able to vote, but this decree is an important first step."

For campaigners of the Lebanese Handicapped Union (LPHU), it was the first official recognition of their four-year public awareness campaign.

"If you cannot vote in an independent way your voice cannot really be heard," said Sylvana Lakkis, head of the LPHU. "In the past people who wanted to vote would have to be taken by someone to the polling station and this person could influence the vote just by the assistance they were giving. So we said this situation must change."

Access survey

Continuing the "My Rights" campaign launched in 2005 with the Youth Association for the Blind (YAB), the LPHU is undertaking a nationwide survey of disabled access to Lebanon's 1,779 polling stations, ahead of the June 2009 parliamentary elections.

Teams of volunteers will assess and photograph all polling locations for wheelchair access. The information will then be compiled into an interactive map available from April on the http://www.lphu.com/ (LPHU website) allowing disabled voters to see where their nearest accessible station is.

So far, the results have not been promising. A pilot study found that of 70 buildings used as polling stations in Beirut, just two were "well equipped to receive people with disability during the elections, without any intervention". Only seven were identified as having a chance of being improved in time for the elections.

"We have a long way to go: the whole of Lebanon is inaccessible for us," said the LPHU's Lakkis. "But as polling stations are usually in schools we are trying to ensure the government allocates a budget line so that in future all schools are accessible. This will ensure our three main rights: education, political participation and access to emergency shelters, as schools are often used as places where people go in emergencies."

On completing the survey, the LPHU is due to discuss with the Interior Ministry ways of improving disabled access to polling stations ahead of the 2010 municipal elections.

"It is really important to me, and others like me, what the LPHU is doing to ensure that the minimum standards exist to be able to vote independently and in dignity," said Haidar.

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