Ladies and Gentlemen: It is my pleasure to be here today to participate in this important national conference.
I believe that we can all agree that for democracy to work, every person’s voice matters. If there are those whose voice is weaker, or who are hampered in presenting their views or seeking access to their government, they deserve special focus and help.
This is a challenge that all democratic societies face. America’s landmark legislation in this area, the Americans with Disabilities Act, was adopted in 1990. It focuses on four political goals: equality of opportunity, independent living, economic self-sufficiency, and full participation. It is this last goal, full participation that is the focus of today’s conference, and has been a key element in American efforts here in Serbia. In the United States, people with disabilities still encounter barriers to participate in the electoral process. It is not that they are less interested. In fact, research in the United State indicates that disabled Americans follow politics and electoral campaigns more closely than the general public. And disabled people are just as likely to be registered to vote as the general public. But they are far less likely to actually vote. The most common problem for electoral participation in my country regards mobility. Over half of people with disabilities in the U.S. report that they have serious difficulties walking or climbing stairs. 30% report difficulties in exercising their fundamental right to vote. Many more struggle to make their voice and their concerns heard every day in the administration of the state.
But with good will and proper support, these barriers can be overcome. For example, before the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the American Association of People with Disabilities worked with county registrars across California, our most populous state, to distribute new, accessible voting machines. People with disabilities could gain experience on how to use an accessible voting machine prior to the vote—helping to ensure that on the day of the election they were acquainted with the new equipment so that their voices were heard.
In many respects, Serbia is also a model for including persons with disabilities in political life. Through USAID, the U.S. Embassy has proudly supported the efforts of the Centre for Independent Living and the National Organization of Persons with Disabilities to increase dialogue between disabled persons’ organizations and their government. These efforts led to the convening of the Parliamentary Disability Caucus Group –an inter-party group that seeks to advance the rights of persons with disabilities. Serbia’s Caucus is one of only three such groups in Europe. We see this as an excellent example of Serbian leadership in introducing the concerns of people with disabilities into the policy- and decision-making process.
Over the past year, working with the Parliamentary Caucus, the Center for Independent Living also successfully advocated for changes to the Criminal Code, the Housing Law, and the Law on Local Self-Government – all with the aim to improve safety and living conditions for disabled persons, and to expand their rights. As a result of these efforts, the Parliament reversed a shocking shortcoming in Serbian law, and now criminal acts against persons with disabilities are sanctioned equally in the Criminal Code. Pending amendments to the Housing Law and the Law on Local-Self Government aim to improve access to housing as well as to policymaking processes at the local level. This will also be great news for advocates of disabled persons’ rights, and is long overdue.
In Bor, Kladovo, Negotin, Novi Pazar, and Prijepolje, local disabled persons’ organizations worked with local self-governments to develop action plans to improve the lives of people with disabilities and their families. Today, we should congratulate them, but also call on all Serbian municipalities to follow their example.
Additionally, we worked with the Republic Election Commission to remove barriers to the participation of persons with disabilities in the election process. In last year’s parliamentary elections, persons with disabilities were able to vote aided by a guide dog or using facsimile signatures when filling out a ballot for the first time. This year, the Republic Election Commission has issued guidelines requiring that all polling stations be accessible. All these steps are welcome.
These are examples of big, positive changes that can be achieved in a relatively short time when civil society and government work together.
Even so, in both our countries, there is more work ahead of us to strengthen the voice of people with disabilities in political life. For example, with the mobile ballot box, political participation by those with disabilities in this country should be easier. And yet, only 2 percent of people with disabilities report that they use their right to vote from home. Whether the reason is lack of clarity in the law, or in the administrative procedures, mobile voting has great potential to empower citizens with mobility constraints to exercise their voting rights.
We still have over two weeks until Election Day. There is still time for the law and its implementation to be clarified and simplified, for polling officials to be instructed and trained so that the full potential of the mobile ballot can be realized, and the voices of all Serbia’s citizens can be heard. There is still time for all of us here to get out the word to shut-ins, to the mobility-challenged or otherwise disabled persons so that they know how to have their voice heard, and how to make their preferences count.
The success of our joint efforts to date should make us optimistic. In Serbia, and in the United States, the persistence of disability rights organizations contributes to the development of democracy, to economic inclusion for all, and to dignity and equal access for all. It is not just everyone’s duty, it is everyone’s right!