Signing would greatly improve deaf people’s election participation experiences

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The Department of Basic Education has revealed that its drive to deliver quality education to the deaf was crippled by a shortage of requisite teachers.

Twenty five years in our democracy, deaf people still have serious difficulties accessing basic information on election campaign promises and how to vote in secret. Despite South African sign language being our twelfth official language – election candidates, the media, and several stakeholders continue to ignore the needs of deaf people. This must change soon if we are serious about ensuring an inclusive democracy that enables every adult citizen to freely make political choices in election of public representatives.

This should concern us all. Come to think of the Electoral Commission statistics, a mere 65.99 per cent of the nearly 27 million registered voters participated in the May 08 elections. There were more than 235,000 spoilt votes, an equivalent of almost half of the total votes cast in the Northern Cape Province. Spoilt votes alone are equivalent to five seats in the National Assembly. Fundamental issues lie at the heart of these statistics. Deaf are being ignored.

As the Election Monitoring Network – a national forum that brings together non-governmental organisations, faith-based organisations, institutions of traditional leadership, community media, and institutions of higher learning – we are involved in voter education, dispute resolution, and election observation in order to promote compliance with the Electoral Code of Conduct.

During each of the previous elections we continually hear anecdotal tales of appalling practice in the way deaf people are treated during election campaigns, but it’s hard to get the exact detail. Some of our worst fears have been confirmed in these 2019 elections through a mixture of our own election observation reports, statistics from the voter experience survey conducted in collaboration with research units in seven institutions of higher learning across the country and anecdotal evidence.

Deaf people are facing constant difficulty with receiving a wide range of political views. For example, automated telephone call messages used by some political parties, public meeting announcements ahead of visits by candidates to local communities, and verbal prompts when candidates are ready to see deaf household members during door-to-door campaigns were inaccessible.

Most of the time deaf people rarely have a clear understanding of election campaign promises. This largely due to limited communication channels meant to be complementary and reinforcing channels.

Inside the voting station, absence of a guaranteed secret vote is a massive problem for deaf people. At the moment many deaf people do not have access to a sign language interpreter who can make sure a voter in need of assistance and electoral staff are able to communicate clearly. This also contributes to deaf voters spending more time in the voting station. There is an obvious link between these delays and unsatisfactory voter turnout or high number of spoilt votes in general.

Some electoral staff we interacted with say that making provision for a sign language interpreter, even during days for special vote ahead of the main election day is unnecessary because a member of the family can interpret. But this view raises questions about the denial of the right to a secret vote. You only have to hear one story about a deaf parent being given assistance in a voting station through the sign language translation of their twelve-year-old child to appreciate quite how wrong this is. Party agents are also not empowered to effectively witness that assistance given to deaf voters inside voting stations is free of undue influence.

We recognise that there are not enough sign language interpreters and bookings can be difficult, but it is the lack of due consideration and inadequate provision for enjoyment of the right to freely make political choices and to vote in secrecy that concerns us most. Yet simple technologies are available to help.

We are urging political parties and the Electoral Commission to start using available online sign language interpreting services in order to enhance interaction with deaf voters during voter registration period as well as on the election day. This can boost confidence of deaf people in the election apparatus and is likely to encourage them to not only vote, but to vote correctly in a manner that contributes to the elimination of spoilt ballots.

There is also a strong cost-saving argument to solving these communication problems. Bad communication means deaf people have to bear the burden of obtaining reliable information of voting than their hearing peers. Various surveys in other aspects of daily lives of deaf people such as in the health sector shows that deaf people are still the most misunderstood patient group. We can see that deafness has a profound impact on people’s wellbeing and general contribution to society and this is significantly worse than other groups of people with disabilities. As a caring society, we can do more to greatly improve deaf people’s election participation experiences.

We have also observed examples of television media and the Electoral Commission not making adequate provisions to provide sign interpreters, either because of an oversight by decision-makers or because they say sign interpreters cost too much. For example, except for the SABC, there were no sign interpreters on television screens during the broadcast of election results announcement ceremony. This was a grave oversight by the Electoral Commission and the media.  

At Election Monitoring Network we are committed to highlighting these inequalities and bringing about improvements. Later this year, we will be leading a collaborative campaign with various civil society organisations serving deaf people to find ways of making our elections more inclusive. We intend to focus on encouraging participation of deaf people in by-elections in order to use lessons learnt to replicate best practices in subsequent national elections. We urge various stakeholders providing services to deaf people to join hands with the Electoral Commission to bring about the changes that are so desperately needed in the interest of South Africa’s maturing democracy. Our highest and hardest task, twenty five years in our democracy, is to make ourselves people on whom nothing is lost.


Nkosikhulule Xhawulengweni Nyembezi is a Policy Analyst and Chairperson of the Election Monitoring Network.