For persons with disabilities to voice their views and have a say in democracy, they need to be able to vote and have access to the tools needed to make informed choices on election day. However, many barriers often stand the way.
For five years, Daria Sassa, a Ukrainian disability rights activist, was unable to vote in the city where she lived because there was no way to update her voting address after a move or use the Central Election Commission's website, which was inaccessible for persons who are blind or have low vision. To update her voting address in person would have been a burdensome process. Sassa and her civic organization joined other activists to advocate for improvements to the system. Recently, with support from NDI, advocacy efforts by civil society led to changes that meant that Sassa and other persons with disabilities were able to more easily change their voting addresses and access important voting information during last year’s nationwide local elections.
“I was registered in Chernivtsi oblast, but for the last five years I have lived in Sumy,” Sassa said. “Due to changes introduced by the State Voter Register to improve accessibility for persons with visual disabilities, I was able to change my voting address online for the first time and vote at the polling station near where I live.”
Sassa’s organization partnered with Group of Influence, a Ukrainian organization that has worked since 2016 to expand voting rights for underrepresented groups, including persons with disabilities and internally displaced persons. Together, they shone a spotlight on the accessibility of the Central Election Commission's website and advocated for changes that allow persons with disabilities to access polling stations, use online voting resources, and vote more independently. Building on those recommendations -- with funding from the U.S. State Department Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor -- NDI partnered with Group of Influence in 2020 to improve voting access across Ukraine for persons with disabilities and internally displaced persons ahead of local elections.
Group of Influence worked closely with the Central Election Commission and the State Voter Registry to ensure that persons with disabilities could access important voter resources during elections by introducing a version of the website geared specifically toward Ukrainians who are blind or have low vision. This new website offered more accessible text and tools that allow them to more easily navigate the website’s registration system and election information. The organization also worked with government bodies to draft new rules that improved the accessibility of polling stations and simplified the process for changing a person’s voting address.
As this successful partnership between civil society and the Ukrainian government has allowed persons with disabilities to vote more easily and independently, advocacy efforts by civil society help promote awareness of issues thsese groups face, driving citizen demand for change and combatting discrimination.
In partnership with NDI, Group of Influence is now turning its attention to disability rights groups in local communities. The organization is training initiative groups like Sassa’s, which are made up of persons with disabilities, local officials, and activists who are united in the goal of building support to advance the rights of persons with disabilities at the local level. By training these groups to build advocacy campaigns, leverage social media, petition elected leaders, and interpret legislation, they will be able to advance their interests and advocate for their rights.
According to Tetiana Durneva, executive director of Group of Influence, training these groups in advocacy skills and helping them better coordinate their activities has a multiplier effect, as new activists feel empowered to work on issues that have a positive impact on their communities.
“A person who is able to do something by themself is more likely to be active in the future, especially when it relates to persons with disabilities,” Durneva said. “Persons with disabilities who were able to change their voting address online now feel more empowered and motivated to advocate for more changes.”
NDI is a non-profit, non-partisan, non-governmental organization that works in partnership around the world to strengthen and safeguard democratic institutions, processes, norms and values to secure a better quality of life for all. NDI envisions a world where democracy and freedom prevail, with dignity for all.