Voter education sessions aid disabled voters
Dili – Car mechanic Joel Fernandes paid no attention to the two steps that he climbed as he entered the polling station for local elections in 2005. His mind was on one thing – casting his vote. As he posted his ballot into the box Joel did not know that this would be the last vote he would cast before losing his ability to walk and that years later those same two steps would be a significant obstacle to his participation in the 2012 presidential elections. (Lee versaun Tetum iha ne'e)
Joel suffered spinal cord injuries in 2006, when the country was in crisis.
“I was in Dili at the time,” says Joel. “I was very scared and rushed to pack up the car with seven other members of my family. We drove quickly up through the mountains at night to get away from Dili, we were very tired and the drive was long.”
- Preparation for Timor-Leste’s 2012 presidential and parliamentary elections was milestone for this young post-conflict nation.
- Voter education sessions for vulnerable groups, including the disabled, are being organised by the Government’s Technical Secretariat for Electoral Administration (STAE) in partnership with UNDP and the UN’s peacekeeping mission UNMIT.
Joel was in the back passenger seat when the accident happened. The driver of the car fell asleep and the vehicle crashed into a tree.
“I was one of five who were injured,” says Joel as he looks down at his wheel chair. “Now I am the only one who still lives with the injuries. I woke up in hospital to be told the terrible news that I had suffered spinal cord injuries. I was very upset because my body wasn’t working properly and outside the country was still in crisis. Eventually I went home but then in 2007 there were elections. My family arranged for me to leave the country because we were scared and so I did not have chance to vote then.”
For Joel and the 1.1 million Timorese, the 2012 presidential and parliamentary elections mark a milestone in the significant progress that Timor-Leste is making towards a peaceful and democratic nation.
Timor-Leste goes to the polls on 17 March in the country’s the third national democratic election since it became an independent country. Since then Timor-Leste has faced and is surmounting many challenges in development and security. Voter turnout is high in Timor-Leste. The country’s current focus on helping disabled people to vote is a testament to its efforts to build a democratic culture.
Almost six years after his accident, Joel is preparing to vote again and is also going to act as one of 21 disabled electoral observers in the country. After receiving a wheelchair and therapy from a charity in Dili called Assert, Joel attended training to help him live independently.
He now works with a charity called the Disabled Persons Organisation as a Disability Officer based at the Leprosy Mission in Dili.
Joel’s workplace is the venue for one of many voter education sessions for vulnerable groups organised by the Government’s Technical Secretariat for Electoral Administration in partnership with UNDP and the UN’s peacekeeping mission UNMIT.
These sessions equip disabled people with information about the electoral process. They also offer a practical voting simulation so that participants know how to vote on the day.
“The sessions help to tell disabled people about their rights and discuss challenges that they face in access, information and getting assistance at polling stations,” says Joel. “This can be particularly difficult for deaf and blind people. I now know that polling staff are required to help me to get the physical access I need to vote.”
To include as many vulnerable groups in society as possible, voter education sessions have also been held in hospitals and prisons where mobile voting units will visit on election day.
For Joel, election day means more than just casting his vote. He is returning to the same polling station that he voted at back in 2005.
“I hope that someone will be able to help me to get up the steps at the polling station,’ he says ‘But as an observer I will also be able to make sure that other disabled people like me are assisted. Just because we are disabled doesn’t mean we can’t vote and contribute to the future of our country,” he said.