BOOSTED by the recent Constitutional Court ruling nullifying a section of the Electoral Act that required polling officers to assist visually impaired voters to cast their ballots, the local disability movement hopes that the proposed new constitution will guarantee them wider rights.
The Supreme Court, sitting as a Constitutional Court, recently declared Section 60 of the Electoral Act null and void saying it violates the principle of the secret ballot, in a landmark case brought up by Mr Simon Mvindi, a visually impaired voter, and five others.
The disability movement views the milestone ruling as the first step in upholding the voting and more rights of the blind. People living with disability hope the ruling would stimulate action towards protecting the voting rights of other disabled groups, including the deaf, dumb, the physically handicapped and persons of short stature.
Welcoming the January Constitutional Court ruling on blind voters, Mr Nyamayabo Mashavakure, a visually impaired teacher, said the basis for the holistic protection of the disabled's rights must be enshrined in the new Constitution.
He said while the ruling was plausible, political parties themselves and the Government through the electoral authority, must consider people with different disabilities in developing political communication materials, such as producing television campaign messages in sign language or posters in Braille.
"The people who approached the court on this matter did a very good job," said Mr Mashavakure.
"The ruling is good, not only for the visually impaired but also for everyone who is living with disability. We hope as we start drafting the new Constitution, we will come up with clear guarantees on the wider rights of the disabled, not just voting rights."
It is estimated that 10 percent of any country's population is disabled, which means that about 1,3 million Zimbabweans have various forms of disability.
The country is in the process of coming up with a new constitution in terms of the Global Political Agreement. Although lack of funding has hampered progress, a significant amount of work has been done since the process started early last year with the appointment of the Parliamentary Select Committee, which is charged with leading the process.
Outreach teams are expected to be dispatched across the country in the next two months to collect the people's views on the proposed supreme law, providing an opportunity for special interest groups like disabled people to contribute.
In his court papers filed in the Supreme Court case, Mr Mvindi recalled that on 29 March 2008 he, accompanied by his wife, went to a polling station hoping to cast his ballot in the harmonised election. However, he said he was taken aback when polling officers told him that they, and not his wife, could legally assist him in the voting process.
"I must hasten to point out that with the marital bond between my wife and I, I am not able to trust anyone more than I trust my wife," he said in the papers.
"She has been by my side throughout the whole period we have been married and from the time I lost my sight completely, she has acted as an aide in all my needs. To my utter shock and surprise, I was denied the right to be assisted by my wife."
The Constitutional Court heard his plea and ruled in his favour and his peers. The full bench unanimously agreed that the section of the Act violated the right of the visually impaired to voting by secret ballot and declared it unconstitutional.
"It is ordered that Section 60 of the Electoral Act (Chapter 2:13) be and is hereby declared to be ultra vires sections 23A (2) (a) of the Constitution of Zimbabwe. Accordingly, Section 60 of the Electoral Act (Chapter 2:13) be and is hereby declared null and void, and is struck down," ruled Chief Justice Godfrey Chidyausiku.
Deputy Chief Justice Luke Malaba and Justices Wilson Sandura, Misheck Cheda and Paddington Garwe concurred.
Advocate Happias Zhou, who represented Mr Mvindi and others, said although his clients were blind, they were not illiterate. He said that the notion that the blind cannot exercise their voting rights other than in the presence of the persons stated in Section 60 of the Act was clear interference with the secrecy of the vote. He suggested that ideal secret voting for the blind people would allow voters to be accompanied by people they trusted.
It was submitted that in other countries, the visually impaired vote on their own on tactile Braille ballots, enlarged print, electronic ballot and other means.
The Minister of Justice and Legal Affairs, Patrick Chinamasa said he appreciated the need for the changes, but the electoral authority does not have funds to ensure that the special ballot papers, electronic ballots are made available.
Mr Mashavakure said most people who are visually impaired shunned voting for fear of possible political reprisals because the Electoral Act required them to disclose their political preferences to polling officers, who are essentially strangers to them.
He said if the Government does not have resources to provide special voting materials for the blind, it must allow the visually impaired to be assisted by their own aides during voting, even on common ballots. This, he said, removes the expense from the Government and places it on the disabled voter.
He said the new constitution must have a non-discriminatory disability clause as opposed to the current one, specifically Section 23 of Constitutional Amendment Number 17, which outlaws discrimination on the basis of physical disability only.
"Physical disability is not the only form of disability," he argued.
"There is also the question of language. If you look at the Kariba Draft for instance, it gives languages that are spoken in the country like Shona, Ndebele, Venda and others. However it leaves out one important language - sign language."
He said the National Constitutional Assembly draft has also its limitations.
"Its disability clause, which is Section 41 I think, gravitates towards the medical model of disability. It suggests that people living with disability are sick or something like that, but it must be known that they were ill at the point that caused their disability, but are now fine. So the constitution must be general in its articulation of disability, not specifying things like 'physical disability' or 'protecting oral languages', excluding sign language."
Mr Tsarai Mungoni, programmes officer (research and advocacy) at the National Association of the Societies for the Care of the Handicapped (Nascoh) said disability rights must be clearly spelt out in the Bill of Rights, adding that the Government must assist the disabled with social grants.
"Disability is expensive to manage," he said, "so people with disability need a social protection scheme in form of a disability grant, to be given to any disabled person, whether they are employed or not. This will serve to mitigate against disability-induced poverty. The Constitution must also clearly provide for affirmative action in terms of economic empowerment, education and representation in private and public sectors."
Mr Mungoni, who is a member of the Thematic Committee on Disability in the Select Committee, decried the fact that out of a population of 1,3 million disabled people in the country, about 20 of them are in the sub-committee of the handicapped.
He added that even in Parliament, there is no MP representing the disabled.
"That is where it starts — lack of representation," he said. "But we are saying the constitution must state a quota to be held by the disabled in Parliament and other critical areas."