With July’s national elections fast approaching, the government should make the voting process more accessible for people living with disabilities, attendants said Thursday at a public forum on the rights of disabled people.
In December, Cambodia ratified the U.N. Convention of the Rights of Persons With Disabilities, yet people with disabilities remain one of the most marginalized groups in Cambodia. And although Cambodian electoral law grants disabled people the right to vote—the most fundamental right in any democracy—there are obstacles that prohibit disabled people from exercising that right.
“It is difficult for disabled people, particularly those who use wheelchairs,” said Ven Ratna, who works for the Phnom Penh Center for Independent living. “Voting stations don’t always have convenient accessibility; for example, there may be no ramp into the building. And stations are often located upstairs in schools—it is difficult for us,” said Mr. Ratna, who suffers from Polio.
Nineteen-year-old Yeng Srey Lak from Takeo province, who was born blind, said that local officials told her that disabled people didn’t need to vote.
“My village discriminates against the disabled,” she said on the sidelines of Thursday’s conference. “I just reached voting age, but when I went to ask about voting, my village chief and commune chief told me I didn’t need to vote because I am disabled,” she said. “They asked why I wanted to vote since I am blind—but I am a Khmer citizen, and I want to vote, too.”
Estimates vary significantly regarding the number of disabled people in Cambodia.
Minister of Social Affairs Ith Samheng, who spoke at the meeting, put the number of people with disabilities at about 200,000, or 1.4 percent of the population, a much lower figure than the 2009 Census, which recorded that 8.1 percent of the country’s population was living with some form of disability. Nongovernment agencies put the prevalence at between 10 and 15 percent, using a more broad definition of disability.
And when Mr. Samheng asked the audience of some 100 people with disabilities to raise their hands if they had registered to vote, less than a quarter indicated that they had done so.
National Election Committee Secretary-General Tep Nytha said that preparation to allow disabled people to vote was generally good. He said that during the registration period, disabled people are given priority, adding that voting cards are now available in Braille and assistants are present at voting stations who can help lift voters in wheelchairs.
“Of course there are still some challenges,” Mr. Nytha said. “But the election law requires that you must register in person, so we cannot go out to their homes to collect their names.”
So Bun Tol, 33, from Kratie province, who was also born blind, said he was registered to vote in the elections. He also tried to vote in last year’s commune elections, but it wasn’t his disability that prevented him.
“I’ve already registered for this upcoming election. My younger brother helped me. There are some weaknesses. For example, in 2012, I couldn’t vote because my name was written incorrectly. That must have been some technical mistake,” he said.