Helping People with Disabilities Vote - A French Approach

Legislative Background

On March 23, 2019, France adopted a law that prohibits judges to deprive people with disabilities of their right to vote. This enfranchises 300,000 French citizens living with a physical or mental disability. Some have argued that this law reform problematically inflates the size of the electorate. Others worry that the reform will give extremist parties with a simplistic political discourse an advantage over parties with a more sophisticated public stance. The former, they say, are easier to understand than the latter. On the practical side the consern is who will physically cast the ballot? Will it be the disabled person or his/her guardian? And, if it is the guardian, will this not give some people – for instance, the parents or relatives of people with disabilities – an extra vote?

One way to address these concerns is to simply point out that similar law reforms have been successfully introduced in almost half of the countries who have ratified the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This shows that persons with disabilities can vote and that their vote does not undermine our democratic practices and ideals. Nor does the fact that the guardians of people with disabilities get to vote twice threaten the integrity of democratic elections. Rather, the real challenge is this: How can families, friends, guardians, professionals and public administrative bodies make sure that people with disabilities can really exert their voting rights?

The Handéo Initiative

Founded in France in 2007, Handéo is an association created with the participation of the main organisations in charge of helping handicapped and aged people regain their freedom of action, to allow them to live a dignified life, at home and amongst their fellow citizen.

In 2019, at the initiative of its Scientific Director, Cyril Desjeux, Handéo has applied ideas from care ethics to develop practical tools that help people with disabilities to participate in elections. These tools include:

  • An awareness guide which explains the stages of the electoral process, defines who the care providers are when it comes to voting, how they can be reached, and lists the activities that care providers can help with (getting to the polling station, understanding the candidates’ electoral manifestos, help cast the vote, explain the results of the elections, and so on);
  • An on-line video tutorial presenting the basic steps of the voting process, from going to the poll booth to understanding what they can ask from care providers when they vote;
  • An awareness kit explaining how to organize civic workshops within which people with or without disabilities engage in role play. For instance, in one of the workshop exercises, participants have to recreate a polling station from the perspective of a person with disabilities. Participants without disabilities participate after they have taken on a physical constraint: they can be blindfolded, sit in a wheelchair, have their hands tied together, have their ears covered or wear an age simulation suit.

Cyril Desjeux on Disabled People Voting

The French sociologist Cyril Desjeux tries to change the way we understand the relation between voting and disabilities. In his recent book, titled Vote and Handicap: Toward an Ethics of Vulnerability, Desjeux looks beyond inclusion issues and argues that we need to rethink what it means to vote in democratic elections. Drawing on theories of care ethics – which are, roughly put, theories that emphasize that our moral relationships are defined by how we depend on and look after each other – Desjeux notes that it is wrong to believe that being dependent on others applies only to a small minority of people. We are all dependent in different respects and at different moments or stages of our lives – for instance, when we age, when we get sick or when we go through particularly difficult life experiences. When this happens, we need other people’s helping hand. We are all, in some sense, vulnerable and in need of care. Thus seen, helping others to exert their right to vote is not a favour that we grant them, but a moral requirement that we need to honour through our electoral policies, as we do – or, at least, should do – through our healthcare or welfare policies.

REDEM: What was the most challenging aspect of your initiative at Handéo?

Cyril Desjeux: The most difficult thing was getting started. It takes time to allow people to know each other, and to figure out what the specific issues of voting with a disability are. This is true for people with a disability themselves, but it is also true for caregivers and professionals that surround them, for political candidates and for the administrators who organize elections. And the main difficulty lies in knowing each other and in understanding what people’s needs actually are.

REDEM: Is there any European or non-European benchmark when it comes to the right to vote and disability?

CD: Countries like Sweden or Canada allow all people with disabilities to vote, including people with mental disabilities. In the Swedish model, it is impossible to be deemed incapable of holding and exerting the right to vote. In Canada, the necessary infrastructure is widely made available to people: bright magnifying lamps, Braille vote templates with touch functions, lists of candidates written in big fonts, bigger pencils, voting booths that are better lit than usual, and so on.

REDEM: Did you receive any support from political parties or politicians?

CD: We did not develop the Handéo tools alone. We worked in partnership with the French Interministerial Committee on Disability and with the French State Secretariat in charge People with Disabilities. Sophie Cluzel, who is the French Secretary of State for Disabled People, has been highly supportive of the development awareness kit documents. She regularly talks about the kit and the Handéo initiative in her public appearances. We have also received many invitations from mayors around France to come and present our initiative to their local communities.

REDEM: Did you receive any reactions from people with disabilities? If so, is there any reaction that you would like to share?

CD: I have received many positive reactions. I particularly remember this one debate in a café in Rennes, organized in collaboration with the Ligues des Droits de l’Homme. There were about thirty people, including judges, local political representatives, and people with physical or mental disabilities. One person in a wheelchair told me that she had never been informed that she could be physically helped by someone else to cast her ballot. She simply did not know this was legally possible. And this was the reason that she had never voted before. Taking part in our discussion, she said, really motivated her to participate in the next elections.