The absolute majority of polling stations are located in buildings inaccessible to people with mobility disabilities

02 September 2020

Only 7 out of 612 polling stations assessed are accessible to people with mobility problems. This is the conclusion of a study carried out last year by the INFONET Alliance and its partners, commissioned by UNDP Moldova.

Only 7 out of 612 polling stations assessed are accessible to people with mobility problems. This is the conclusion of a study carried out last year by the INFONET Alliance and its partners, commissioned by UNDP Moldova. National legislation obliges local authorities to ensure accessibility in public institutions, but local elected officials say they do not have enough resources to adapt buildings. While the authorities complain that they don't have the money, the Republic of Moldova lags behind in respecting the rights of people with special needs. Ahead of last year's local elections, 612 polling stations in Chisinau and Balti municipalities, Causeni, Edinet, Hincesti and ATU Gagauzia districts (representing more than 30% of all polling stations in the country) were assessed for accessibility. The access to the building, the access ramp, including the support bars, the entrance doors, the interior space, the adapted toilet, the lift (if applicable) and the specially arranged parking were checked. The findings of the study "Equal access for all at polling stations" were more than worrying: only seven of the polling stations assessed are accessible to people with mobility problems. Accessibility a taboo subject? Two polling stations were set up last year in the commune of Fîrlădeni in the district of Căușeni: one in the "Prichindel" kindergarten and the other in the "Mihail Sadoveanu" high school. To reach the ballot box, the commune's residents with mobility problems had to climb the 15 steep steps in front of the school building. The mayor of Fîrlădeni, Sergiu Vengher, is aware of the problem, but says that the construction of an access ramp requires financial resources. He says that since last autumn, when he became mayor, no one has raised the issue of accessibility in this public institution, which is managed by the district education directorate. However, Sergiu Vengher promised to discuss the issue with the high school's director and seek solutions. Ramp, elevator and sanitary facilities adapted to people with special needs The situation at the "Meșterul Manole" Theoretical High School in the village of Sălcuța in the same district is quite different. Unlike the situation in Fîrlădeni, where a polling station was set up during the last elections, the building of the educational institution is adapted for people with special needs: from the access ramp and lift to the sanitary unit equipped with support bars. The headmistress of the high school, Liuba Sănduța, said that the problems of people with disabilities must be solved by the authorities, without looking for excuses. She said that the high school had benefited from a World Bank project which had provided both the entrances to the building and the toilets. "It's easy for voters now, especially for the elderly who walk around, leaning on a cane. At the last election one man even cried with joy that he could vote in the polling station after many years. A lot of money is spent on other things and various celebrations. I think it's all about attitude. If you don't want it, you don't want it," says Liuba Sănduța. Support ramps and haphazardly built slopes Victor Koroli, executive director of the Alliance of Community Centres for Access to Information and Training in Moldova (INFONET), one of the authors of the above-mentioned study, points out that local authorities are responsible for ensuring the accessibility of public buildings where polling stations are set up. He confirms that most local elected representatives say they do not have the money to build ramps or handrails, but the problem lies in society's perception and attitude towards people with special needs. "The Central Electoral Commission only comes up with recommendations on how the polling station should be set up. The local public administration is responsible for the rest. People often don't understand what accessibility means," says Victor Koroli. The expert adds that during the assessment of polling stations, he observed in many localities access ramps with support bars built haphazardly, without respecting the rules in force, i.e. they were made only to mimic accessibility: "Often, we encountered metal rails placed under high angles, inaccessible for people in wheelchairs. If it rains or snows, the rails become slippery and impassable for people with special needs." INFONET's Executive Director calls on local public authorities to respect the rights of all people, including those with special needs, whether disabled or elderly, and to adapt the premises of polling stations by the day of this year's presidential elections. Sanctions for authorities We mention that on 4 November 2016, during the 26th Session of the UN Human Rights Council (Universal Periodic Review 2016) and on 21-22 March 2017, during the 17th Session of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, at which the Country Report on the implementation of the UN Convention was heard, the Republic of Moldova received several disability-specific recommendations. In both cases, our country had shortcomings in terms of accessibility of infrastructure, transport, information and communications for persons with disabilities. Thus, the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities made some final comments on the initial report of the Moldovan authorities, expressing concern about the "total lack of accessibility for persons with disabilities". The Committee recommended that the Moldovan authorities take all measures to ensure the implementation of legal guarantees for accessibility in all areas, including urban planning, construction and public services. It also called for sanctions to be imposed on persons or authorities responsible for violating legal guarantees of accessibility. Have your fundamental rights and freedoms been violated? Call the free "Green Line" 080080030 from landlines or mobile phones and we will help you to be heard and refer you to the relevant public institutions. Lilia Zaharia