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Khasnabis C, Heinicke Motsch K, Achu K, et al., editors. Community-Based Rehabilitation: CBR Guidelines. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2010.

Cover of Community-Based Rehabilitation: CBR Guidelines

Community-Based Rehabilitation: CBR Guidelines.

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Political participation


A narrow definition of politics refers to the activities of governments, politicians, or political parties. A broader definition includes the interrelationships between people – between men and women, parents and children, people with and without disabilities – and the operation of power at every level of human interaction.

Political participation includes a broad range of activities through which people develop and express their opinions on the world and how it is governed, and try to take part in and shape the decisions that affect their lives. These activities range from developing thinking about disability or other social issues at the individual or family level, joining disabled people's organizations or other groups and organizations, and campaigning at the local, regional or national level, to the process of formal politics, such as voting, joining a political party, or standing for elections.

Ordinary people can participate in politics, and every individual has the right to participate, including people with disabilities. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Article 29 on participation in political and public life, mandates that “States Parties shall guarantee to persons with disabilities political rights and the opportunity to enjoy them on an equal basis with others” (5).

People with disabilities face many barriers to political participation, and many choose not to participate in politics because the issues that concern them are often ignored and/or they feel they have limited power to influence change and decision-making. Promoting political participation for people with disabilities is an important part of the empowerment process. Until more people with disabilities participate, their voices will not be heard and their right to equity and access to the health, education, livelihood, and social sectors will be restricted.

BOX 11Uganda

The Gulu experience

The National Union of Disabled Persons of Uganda (NUDIPU) was formed in 1987 to advocate for the equalization of opportunities for people with disabilities, and for their involvement and participation in the policy, planning and implementation of disability programmes in close partnership with the government, civil society and the general public. After many years of political lobbying by NUDIPU, people with disabilities are now represented by five parliamentarians, and also by many councillors in local governments at district and subcounty levels.

Like many countries, Uganda has laws which relate to people with disabilities including the: Council for Disability Act 2003, Policy on Disability 2003, Persons with Disabilities Act 2006, and Equal Opportunities Act 2007. The Act of 2006 outlines provisions for accessibility and penalties for those who do not adhere to the law.

Similar laws exist in many countries, but often implementation is poor and the public unaware of the existence and implications of the laws. NUDIPU believes that “If users don't come out to claim/demand their rights, then the related acts may remain on paper and the intended users may never benefit”.

The Centenary Rural Development Bank Ltd in Gulu, Uganda, was not accessible for people with disabilities. The building had several steps which made it difficult for people with mobility impairments, particularly wheelchair users, to enter. NUDIPU discussed this issue with the bank, but the bank refused to modify the building entrance to make it accessible.

The Persons with Disabilities Act 2006 states that “It shall be the responsibility of all organs in public and private institutions to provide suitable access for persons with disabilities and universal standard designs for toilets”. NUDIPU took the matter to court and, after a series of hearings, the judge ruled in favour of NUDIPU, directing the Bank to make their building accessible and cover all the court expenses incurred by NUDIPU. As a result of the court case, Centenary Bank management directed all branches throughout the country to ensure their premises were accessible for people with disabilities.

The Gulu experience sets a good example for the disability movement. People with disabilities and their family members need to have political awareness to achieve their rights. It has also proved that people must be mobilized and organized in order to advocate for their rights and bring about change in their communities.


People with disabilities participate in political and public life on an equal basis with others.

The role of CBR

The role of CBR is to ensure that:

  • people with disabilities and their families have the information, skills and knowledge to enable them to participate in politics, and have access to opportunities to participate;
  • disability issues are visible so that they are integrated into political decision-making and are at the centre of development policies and programmes.

Desirable outcomes

  • CBR personnel have increased awareness of the political system.
  • People with disabilities and their family members have increased political awareness.
  • Governments and civil society are aware of disability issues and the rights of persons with disabilities and their families to participate in political processes.
  • Barriers which prevent the participation of people with disabilities and their families in political processes are reduced or removed.

Key concepts

Power and decision-making

Power is the ability to make informed choices and the freedom to take action. Decisions are made by people with power, and in all societies there are some people who are more powerful than others because of factors, such as age, gender role, ethnicity, political affiliation, economic situation (13). Power is present at every level of society, from the family through to government level – understanding who has the power to make decisions and why they have this power is an important first step in political participation.

Barriers to political participation

The barriers to political participation that people may face are similar to the barriers mentioned in other components of the CBR guidelines. In summary they include the following.

  • Poverty – poor people are mostly focused on survival activities; their basic needs often need to be met first before they can participate, so they may have limited time or interest.
  • Education – without information and knowledge, meaningful participation in politics can be difficult.
  • Social isolation – there is a limited network to support and encourage political participation.
  • Personal factors – people may have limited confidence or motivation to participate.
  • Stigma and discrimination – majority groups may have prejudices, fears and discomfort towards people with disabilities and therefore may not support their participation.
  • Lack of disability-friendly processes – access barriers can make it difficult for people with disabilities to participate, e.g. inaccessible voting booths.
  • Lack of role models – in many countries or communities there are few examples of people with disabilities in high profile political positions.
  • Legal barriers – in many countries people with disabilities are not permitted to vote, e.g. people with mental health problems.

It is essential that CBR programmes are realistic about the level of participation that is practically possible for people with disabilities living in poor communities, and that activities are designed taking potential barriers into account.

Disability as a political issue

Many of the disadvantages that people with disabilities and their family members face are because governments and policy-makers do not address some of the main problems of disability, e.g. the social barriers and discrimination. The needs of people with disabilities are rarely at the top of the policy agenda, especially in places where resources are limited. As a result, there are very few inclusive mainstream programmes and disability-specific services. Where disability is addressed in policies, implementation is often poor and as a result there are still many barriers in society for people with disabilities.


A practical understanding of how the government works, e.g. knowledge about political structures and processes, knowing how power flows through them, and an understanding of how to influence them can be useful for advocacy to build alliances and influence change. There are generally three branches to government: the legislative branch (i.e. parliament/assembly), the executive branch (i.e. government and civil service), and the judicial branch (i.e. the courts). Countries are divided into administrative areas and there are different levels of government, e.g. at local, district, regional and national levels. At each level these branches may have democratically elected legislative bodies who pass laws. The legislative branch is elected by local people. At the most local level, this may be the village council, then the district or regional assembly, and then the national assembly/parliament.

Political quotas

To ensure political representation, many countries have reserved a percentage of seats on elected bodies at the local, regional and national levels and/or a percentage of government jobs for marginalized groups, e.g. women, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities. These are referred to as “quotas”, “affirmative action” or “positive discrimination”.

Suggested activities

Ensure CBR personnel develop awareness of the political system

CBR programmes need to have a practical understanding of how the government works to enable them to build partnerships and influence change. They could develop this awareness by:

  • identifying key legislation and policies that are related to disability and the development sectors;
  • researching the role of the government and the responsibilities of each department – which department is responsible for what and who has the power to make decisions;
  • finding out about the political structure at the local level, how government decisions filter down to this level and if there is local power for decision-making;
  • meeting with political representatives regularly, including representatives of the opposition, regardless of personal affiliations; CBR programmes need to be nonpartisan, i.e not subscribe to, or be thought to subscribe to a particular party or power-base.

Facilitate development of political awareness

Many people, including people with disabilities, and especially the poor, may have low levels of political awareness, e.g. they may not know how to vote or may be unaware of the existence of national laws regarding disability rights or international conventions, such as the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. To encourage political participation, CBR programmes can:

  • encourage adults with disabilities to join literacy programmes (see Education component);
  • ensure people with disabilities have access to advocacy and rights-based training;
  • link people with disabilities to self-help groups and disabled people's organizations, where they can learn useful skills for political participation, e.g. public speaking, problem-solving, campaigning;
  • ensure children and adolescents are included in activities where they have the opportunity to express their opinions, think and make decisions, and understand the consequences of their actions.

Raise disability awareness within the political system

Quite often discrimination and exclusion of people with disabilities is due to ignorance and lack of knowledge at government level. Therefore another part of the strategy towards enabling people with disabilities to participate in politics is to develop disability awareness within political systems. Suggested activities include:

  • making local political representatives and bureaucrats aware that legislation related to disability exists;
  • conducting disability-awareness training with local councils – it is important that people with disabilities take leadership roles in this training;
  • involving political leaders and representatives in activities carried out by CBR programmes and people with disabilities, e.g. invite them to attend the inauguration of a new CBR programme or events celebrating the International Day of Persons with Disabilities – political leaders and representatives will want to be seen as contributors to the well-being of their constituents, and CBR programmes need to take advantage of this.

Facilitate access to political processes

CBR practitioners need to understand the numerous barriers to political participation, and in partnership with self-help groups, disabled people's organizations and others, can work to ensure that these barriers are reduced and/or removed. Suggested activities include:

  • providing recommendations to local authorities about making voting sites and procedures accessible to people with disabilities when elections are being planned – this includes ensuring buildings are physically accessible and voting materials are easy to understand and use by people with a range of impairments;
  • encouraging national electoral commissions and advocacy organizations to inform voters with disabilities about their voting rights and what assistance is available to enable them to participate;
  • encouraging political leaders and parties to develop accessible propaganda material and to depict voters with disabilities on these materials;
  • investigating transport options for people with disabilities, particularly those with mobility impairments, to enable them to reach voting venues;
  • identifying the political seats/government jobs that are reserved for marginalized groups and encourage people with disabilities to take advantage of these positions.

BOX 12Ghana

Enabling the blind to vote

The International Foundation of Electoral Systems (IFES) was awarded a grant from the Finland Ministry for Foreign Affairs to design and pilot-test a ballot in Ghana that would enable blind voters to vote secretly and independently. As in most low-income nations, Ghanaian voters who are blind rely on assistants to help them vote. The ballot that was pilot-tested did not use Braille, but instead relied on tactile cues, as less than 1% of blind adults in Ghana are literate. The ballot was tested in elections in 2002, and was designed in collaboration with the Ghana Electoral Commission, the Ghana Federation of the Disability Associations, and Action on Disability and Development of Ghana (14).

Copyright © World Health Organization 2010.

All rights reserved. Publications of the World Health Organization can be obtained from WHO Press, World Health Organization, 20 Avenue Appia, 1211 Geneva 27, Switzerland (tel.: +41 22 791 3264; fax: +41 22 791 4857; e-mail: tni.ohw@sredrokoob). Requests for permission to reproduce or translate WHO publications – whether for sale or for noncommercial distribution – should be addressed to WHO Press, at the above address (fax: +41 22 791 4806; e-mail: tni.ohw@snoissimrep).

Bookshelf ID: NBK310967


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