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Language Barrier Concerns In Recent Election

Web posted on October 29, 2014

Dear Editor:

In its report The City of Guelph 2014 Municipal Election Accessibility Plan, the City committed to providing an accessible and barrier free community and services. It also had an objective to ensure that all the electors and candidates have an equal opportunity to participate in the 2014 Municipal Election. Yet, did it accomplish it?

The election team did a very good job by focusing their energy on creating an accessibility plan for people with physical and other medical disabilities, but it seems to me that they failed to consider other forms of barriers, not medically diagnosed disabilities or challenges in our diverse Guelph community.

The Guelph community is composed of a significant portion of immigrants with various levels of language skills. There is a significant portion of our population that has language difficulties due continuous decline in their cognitive ability. Yet, there may be some native Canadians with poor literacy. I am concerned this people were well served in the past election. I did not come across any specific plan that addressed the need of Guelph citizens with poor language skills.

Poor language skill is not always a medically diagnosed disability. However, people with language difficulties should be supported so that they can enjoy an equal opportunity to participate in the election. This is also a sensitive issue as not everybody with poor language skills will be willing to acknowledge their language difficulties. This would be specially a case of those who are depressed of their decreasing language ability due to aging or other cognitive issues. I believe my personal experience in the past election would clarify the accessibility issues due to language barrier.

On the Election Day, I visited two voting stations: Salvation Army Citadel and Stone Road Mall. First, I took my mother to Salvation Army Citadel to help her cast her vote. I was surprised there were no any displays of election ballots in the room to demonstrate my mother on how to vote. I knew, in the provincial election, sample ballots were displayed in the polling station, and people were able to ask questions if they did not understand how to vote. I expressed my concern at the registration that a ballot must be confidential when it was already marked, but why even the blank ballots were kept confidential at their polling station, and it was not displayed for the people to study and become familiar with. A response was given to me that they were not displaying. In addition, they handed over the ballot covered in a folder. As a result, I was not able to demonstrate my mother how to cast the ballot properly. I suggested to the staff that my mother had the right to have me assist her in her voting process. However, the election officials denied that assistance to my mother by explaining that only people with physical disability were allowed to have someone accompany them. I considered it was their poor understanding of disability needs.

I also wondered while The City of Guelph 2014 Accessibility Plan allows any qualified elector on the voters' list to appoint another qualified elector to vote on their behalf, why my mother could not choose, at the very least, to appoint me as her proxy to vote. The accessibility plan also states that election officials are available to assist voters who have difficulty with reading and writing. However, at this particular location, the election officials were not able to inform my mother of the various options and assistance available for her to successfully cast her ballot, despite her language barrier.

I felt that the staff who served us was there to discipline the electors and not to welcome and help the electors. I did not continue arguing with them to obtain the required assistance to my mother. I allowed my mother to go alone to the booth and cast her ballot. Unfortunately, my mother did not understand the instructions well and improperly cast the ballot, which was returned invalid. I felt further conversation with the staff over there that did not know how to support a person with language barrier would only increase the embarrassment of my mother, and it would not improve the situation. I left the polling station immediately.

However, my experience was very different at Stone Road Mall Polling Station. I felt very welcoming and supported by the staff over there. Although I was not able to prove my residential status in ward 5 as I recently moved there, the staff remained calm, reassured that I could vote, consulted the policy and guidelines and worked out a solution together with me. They answered all my questions with patients. I was very happy about their attitude. I took this opportunity to clarify my doubt. I asked them, while they had no displays of sample ballots in their polling station, how they would help, for example, me demonstrate the voting process to my mother, who had a language barrier. The staff gave me a clear answer that electors had choice to have their interpreters with them at booth to help them cast the ballot properly.

In my understanding, it was not a written policy in The City of Guelph 2014 Municipal Election Accessibility Plan. However, the staffs at Stone Road Mall Polling Station were able to use the analogy of the principles laid out under the voting assistance section in The City of Guelph 2014 Accessibility Plan and find a proper remedy for this issue. This raised another concern that the election officials might not have been trained evenly in all the wards up to the standards. People who cast votes in the polling stations that had well trained election officials might have had nice experience while those who cast vote in polling stations that had inadequately trained election staff might not have had the same experience.

Overall, I believe the Guelph election team should consider the diversity of the Guelph population and the various needs of the electors. A diverse community would include not only people with various levels of disability but also people with various levels of literacy. For the next election, I suggest that the election team address the accessibility issue of people with poor language skills at the planning stage, and that the training of election officials also consider fostering helpful attitudes on the election officials. Unlike in many cities around the world, the incidents of cheating are very rare in Guelph, and the citizens of Guelph are relatively trustworthy. Therefore, the priority of the election officials at polling stations should be on welcoming and helping the Guelph citizens without being prejudicial to them and not pretending to be there to discipline the already nervous electors that have language and other barriers.

- Kovarthanan Konesavarathan

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