Prior to the 2018 elections, the National Electoral Commission installed 126 ramps and benches at polling stations across the country, improving access for voters with disabilities on an unprecedented scale.
The project enabled thousands to exercise their franchise on March 7, at locations where access was judged to be most difficult.
Ramps were built over steps, up to difficult doorways and across rainwater drains at schools, courts and other venues. Benches were installed at 16 centres as a resting place, particularly for those on crutches and the elderly.
For Paul Osman Kabia, the project was personal as well as professional. The social enterprise he chairs, United Polio Brothers and Sisters, was engaged by the SNEC to install the ramps. As a polio sufferer, he understood all too well the indignities that people with disability could suffer at polling stations. “In the 2012 election and before if your voting place had difficult steps then other people had to carry you in. Sometimes they would talk to you about your vote and try to influence you.
“People with disabilities knew that was a risk and it created some bad feeling, and so people were not voting because they did not want to be in that situation. When we receive that kind of help we feel ashamed.”
“As a person with disability, I feel happy, I feel happy because I know that steps are a barrier, especially for my colleagues who use wheelchairs,” he says.
Having a bench to sit on is a great relief for people like himself on crutches, before or after voting.
The project was coordinated from United Polio Brothers and Sisters’ office and workshop in Kissy Road in eastern Freetown, where mechanics and technicians busily work on wheelchair repair, car engines or welding metal gates.
The organisation offers disabled people training on these skills and others, including panel-beating, upholstery, carpentry, metalwork and tailoring. The ramps were made of hardwood, with filets to bolster the boards and stop crutches slipping.
After encountering some reticence from some community leaders, Paul says everyone “bought the idea”.
He has since received several requests for permanent concrete ramps as they are more durable than wooden ramps – particularly given the effects of high rainfall in the region.
The day before the March 7 vote, Paul said: “I will exercise my vote because I want to contribute to the development of this country and choose the peaceful way for this country. Casting my vote means I can try and have a leader of my choice, which is very important to me.”
Paul, who has polio, founded the organisation with ten other people with disabilities soon after the civil war ended in 2002. Rather than simply appealing for charity, they opted for a social enterprise, seeking contracts for commercial work but providing training for people disability that would otherwise be very hard to come by.
As the result of polio and injuries incurred during the country’s civil war, among other things, persons living with disabilities are widely visible throughout Sierra Leone. Nonetheless, stigma is pervasive and they often face challenges, such as going to school and finding work.
Nearly 20 years after starting his organization, Paul believes government must still do more to support people with disability.
“It is a huge challenge in this country,” says Paul. “We have tried to engage ministers, because we need equipment and support for training. We keep on trying.”
In response to a request from the Government of Sierra Leone and the National Electoral Commission (NEC) UNDP established a multi-donor project to support the technical preparations for voter registration and the 2018 elections. This follows a successful project that supported the NEC in the drawing of new electoral boundaries in 2016.
Previous Sierra Leone elections received large amounts of donor support, not only for technical assistance but also through meeting the cost of processes such as voter registration and polling itself. Recognizing the maturation of Sierra Leonean institutions, the project focuses only on key processes and areas that require support or improvement.