MEP Helga Stevens - Belgium

MEP Helga Stevens - Belgium

“I think I have voted more than 20 times in my life, counting all the elections after I turned 18. In Belgium, every citizen is obliged to vote at local and provincial elections, regional parliament elections, federal parliament elections, and European Parliament elections. In the rare case of public consultations, voting is not obligatory in Belgium.

I have never had major problems with the voting process in Flanders. All the information on how and where to vote was accessible to me as a deaf person: it is all written information. The only problem – but an important one – I have encountered as a deaf citizen was getting full access to the spoken information out there such as political meetings, televised debates, TV and radio interview, etc. Access to the television has improved a lot over the past years thanks to the provision of (more) captioning and sign language interpretation. Social media has recently also become more accessible: many videos are now captioned or subtitled. These are very positive and important developments for deaf citizens.

I can point to a very positive experience last year, during the local elections in Flanders. The televised debate on the Flemish public TV station between all the leading politicians running for mayor in Antwerp was sign interpreted simultaneously. I was therefore able to watch and understand the debate which was broadcasted live. It was very nice: many deaf people prefer to see sign language interpreters on TV, especially for programmes that are broadcast live, since captioning always runs a bit behind. I hope they will do it again for the upcoming elections in May.

Why did I decide to stand for office? The answer is very easy: I used to work as an attorney, and as an attorney you can make a difference to one person at a time. As a politician, you can make a positive difference in the lives of many people at the same time. This is why I became a politician: to have a positive impact on people’s lives, especially in the life of persons with disabilities.

A specific challenge for me, as a candidate, was the availability of sign language interpreters. For every activity really: meeting with the constituents, debates, campaign activities. I strongly believe that governments need to establish a fund to cover the expenses related to special accommodations which candidates with disabilities need to be able to compete on equal basis in the election process.
There is still a long way to go to make elections fully accessible for all. First, I would like to see a change in the laws that deprive persons with intellectual disability of the right to vote. This is just not fair. They should also be able to vote and get information about politics and elections in easy to read format.

I also want to see polling places made fully accessible. Polling places that are “good enough” is not good enough – fully accessible is the goal.  This includes polling places, electronic voting machines that are fully accessible for blind persons… the whole package.”