Eugene Smith on Accessibility and Elections in South Africa 

Faith Muange, our People with Disability & Inclusivity Lead, takes us to a conversation with Eugene Smith, a blind individual and certified web accessibility expert and trainer, to discuss his personal experiences with elections in South Africa. 

As we cast our ballots, the reality of this process varies significantly among citizens. Often, we don’t see stories of persons with disabilities featured in our feeds, highlighting the unique challenges they face. Eugene Smith, an advocate for accessibility and a blind voter himself, brings these crucial narratives to the forefront. In his relentless pursuit of an inclusive democracy, Eugene shares his experiences and insights, shedding light on the obstacles and solutions that can ensure every South African’s voice is heard and valued in the electoral process. 

a) As someone who is blind, what specific challenges have you encountered when accessing election-related information online? 

As a blind individual, I encounter challenges such as websites, documents, and media not being screen reader-friendly, lack of alternative text for images, poorly labeled links and forms, and inconsistent use of headings, which make navigation difficult and accessing information almost impossible. 

b) How can these challenges be addressed to ensure a more inclusive voting experience for blind individuals? 

These challenges can be addressed by ensuring websites, PDF documents, and social media posts follow Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), making them compatible with screen readers, providing alternative text for images, using clear and consistent headings, and properly labeling links and forms. Regular usability testing with blind users can also help identify and resolve accessibility issues. 

c) How has South Africa’s electoral body factored in accessibility during elections? 

South Africa’s Electoral Commission (IEC) has factored in accessibility by developing the Universal Ballot Template (UBT) in collaboration with the South African National Council for the Blind (SANCB) and BlindSA. The UBT allows blind and partially sighted voters to vote independently and accurately by aligning ballot papers with Braille and large print cut-out windows. 

2. Assistive Technologies and Web Accessibility: 

a) Could you share examples of assistive technologies that you find particularly effective for accessing election-related content? 

I use mainly screen readers such as Narrator, JAWS, or NVDA to read websites and candidate information, including speeches and policy documents. Low-vision users often use magnification software like Windows Magnifier. Additionally, the Universal Ballot Template (UBT) is a game-changing tool for independently marking ballots during elections. 

b) How can web developers better design and optimize their platforms to accommodate these technologies? 

Web developers can improve accessibility by adhering to WCAG, using semantic HTML and ARIA landmarks for better screen reader navigation, providing descriptive alt text for images, ensuring keyboard accessibility, organizing content with clear headings, allowing text resizing and offering high-contrast options, and properly labeling forms. 

3. Collaboration with Election Authorities: 

a) How can the South African Electoral Commission collaborate more effectively with experts like yourself to enhance accessibility during elections? 

The IEC can enhance accessibility by continuing to collaborate with organizations like SANCB and BlindSA, and by involving accessibility specialists and regular users of assistive technology in usability testing and feedback sessions. This continuous feedback loop helps identify and address barriers to accessibility. 

b) What steps can be taken to ensure that accessibility is a priority in the electoral process? 

To ensure accessibility is a priority, the IEC can set and enforce strict accessibility standards for all election materials, regularly train poll workers on best practices and assistive tools like the UBT, and raise awareness about the importance of disabilities and inclusion. 

4. Educating Voters and Poll Workers: 

a) How can we raise awareness among voters and poll workers about the importance of accessibility? 

We can raise awareness through targeted educational campaigns, workshops, and informational materials highlighting the barriers faced by individuals with disabilities and the benefits of an inclusive voting process. Sharing stories and testimonials from voters with disabilities can personalize the message. 

b) What role can training and education play in promoting an inclusive voting environment? 

Training and education are important for promoting an inclusive voting environment by ensuring poll workers understand accessibility best practices and the use of assistive technologies. Educating voters about available accessibility options empowers them to participate confidently in the electoral process. 

c) How can we ensure that disabled citizens have equal access to voting and participate fully in the democratic process? 

Equal access can be ensured by providing accessible voting materials and locations, implementing assistive technology aids like the UBT, offering comprehensive training for poll workers, actively seeking feedback from the disabled community, and enforcing legal protections and policies that mandate accessibility standards. 

d) Why is it crucial to have meaningful representation of persons with disabilities in political leadership and decision-making roles?  

Meaningful representation ensures that the unique perspectives and needs of persons with disabilities are considered in policy-making, leading to more inclusive and equitable outcomes. Leaders with disabilities can advocate for better policies, remove barriers, and serve as role models. 

e) How does this representation positively impact younger generations, and what role does civic education play in fostering awareness and inclusion? 

Representation of persons with disabilities in leadership roles positively impacts younger generations by providing relatable role models who show that disability does not prevent success and influence. Civic education plays a role in fostering awareness and inclusion by teaching young people about the importance of diversity and the contributions of individuals with disabilities, building a more empathetic and inclusive society. 

By adopting inclusive practices and technologies, we can create a more equitable voting process that upholds the principles of democracy. We must continue to advocate for and implement changes that dismantle barriers, allowing every citizen to exercise their right to vote with dignity and independence.  

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