I propose to take Questions Nos. 1517 to 1519, inclusive, together.
Recognising that people with disabilities have particular needs, my Department endeavours to ensure that the voting process is as accessible and inclusive as possible across all constituencies.
In the run up to polling day at elections and referendums, my Department publishes information in national newspapers at key stages of the process that are of particular relevance to voters with disabilities. Soon after polling day has been determined my Department places an advertisement in national newspapers, reminding voters with disabilities about their entitlement to be included in the supplement to the postal and special voters lists, as appropriate to their circumstances, if they are not already included in the postal and special voters lists. Later on, a further advertisement is placed reminding voters who have difficulty gaining access to their local polling station that they may apply to have their vote transferred to a more accessible station in their constituency/local electoral area.
In my Department’s Memorandum for the Guidance of Returning Officers, which issues in advance of electoral events, advice is provided about the selection of polling stations having regard to the needs of voters with disabilities. Where it has not been possible to acquire premises for polling stations that are or can be made accessible to wheelchair users, Returning Officers must give public notice of these premises as soon as they are selected as polling stations. They are advised to do so as soon as possible but, as a minimum, they are required to do so no later than 8 days before polling day so as to give electors adequate time to apply to have their vote transferred to an alternative accessible polling place if they so wish. The Guidance advises Returning Officers that the form of public notice could include advertising in national and local newspapers, use of appropriate websites, use of local media and communicating with local disability groups as well as other relevant local and national groups.
My Department’s Memorandum for the Guidance of Returning Officers also addresses the need for awareness regarding the needs of voters with disabilities. Returning Officers are required to provide at each polling station an appropriate table and chair, located in such a position as to ensure secrecy in voting, at which electors such as wheelchair users, persons with a physical disability, persons with vision impairment or the elderly can mark their ballot papers if they find it more convenient. Where feasible, they are asked to consider installing a low height voting compartment to facilitate voters who use wheelchairs or those who are short of stature.
My Department’s Manual for Presiding Officers, which also issues to Returning Officers in advance of electoral events for use in their polling stations, draws particular attention to the needs of voters with disabilities. The Manual sets out a number of practical measures in this regard and refers to an online training module that is available on the website of the National Disability Authority. More generally, the Electoral Acts contain measures to assist voters with particular disabilities. Voters who are blind or vision impaired or who are otherwise so physically incapacitated or are unable to read or write to such an extent that they are unable to vote without assistance may avail of companion voting or voting with the assistance of the Presiding Officer. Other measures in place include the requirement to have on display at the polling station a large print version of the ballot paper and the inclusion of candidates' photographs and party emblems on the ballot paper. Blind and vision impaired voters will also have the option at the forthcoming elections, referendum and plebiscites to use a ballot paper template to enable them to vote independently. Local Returning Officers are responsible for providing necessary training for their staff, including Presiding Officers, in advance of polling day.
While comprehensive arrangements are in place to assist participation in the electoral process by individuals with physical disabilities, nonetheless my Department continues to seek to improve these arrangements and to have regard to the special needs of such persons. In this context, I set up a working group on disability voting at the end of 2018, which includes representatives from the Irish Wheelchair Association, the Disability Federation of Ireland, the Blind Legal Alliance and the National Disability Authority. The group is working on improving accessibility to polling stations for voters with physical disabilities, particularly wheelchair users, with the goal of all polling stations being fully accessible as soon as possible. The group is also tasked with other initiatives including the development and improvement of ballot paper templates for the European and local elections; reviewing and updating, as required, the Department’s ‘Accessible Voting Checklist’, which addresses improved accessibility within polling stations; and in promoting measures to advance voting accessibility, as set out in Article 29 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.