International

Australians with Down syndrome are being denied the ability to vote

Down syndrome

Disability advocates in Australia are sounding the alarm due to reports that people with Down syndrome are having trouble getting on the country’s electoral roll because they’re deemed to be of “unsound mind.”

Shea MacDonough, a 36-year-old woman with Down syndrome, told ABC News that she experienced the discrimination first hand. MacDonough explained that her parents took her off the electoral roll in 2012 because they felt that she didn’t understand the voting process. In 2017, when she decided that she did want to have a say, MacDonough tried to re-register herself. However, the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) rejected her registration, citing a 1918 law that disqualified her “by reason of being of unsound mind” and being “incapable of understanding the nature and significance of enrollment and voting.”

In order to qualify, MacDonough needed to provide “documentary evidence from a medical practitioner” that she was now “capable of understanding.”

Data from a 2014 report by the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) shows that MacDonough’s experience is not an isolated one, as more than 28,000 people were removed from the federal electoral roll between 2008 and 2012.

READ: Doctor schedules abortion for baby with Down syndrome before giving parents the diagnosis

Natalie Wade, vice president of Australian Lawyers for Human Rights, is working to change the narrative.

“We’re really concerned that in 2022, we still have these laws in place,” Wade said of the 1918 provision. “The current wording… targets people with disabilities, particularly those with intellectual disability and cognitive impairment, who have not been afforded the right to education, who may have low literacy, who have not been afforded the right to social participation or employment.”

“The phrase ‘unsound mind’ is incredibly archaic and is a sign of the times in which it was drafted,” she added. “It harks back to a time where we referred to people with disabilities in very grotesque ways — as lunatics in asylums — but we absolutely must ensure that our laws reflect our current understanding of disability.”

A coalition of 65 organizations and disability advocates sent an open letter last month to Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Labor leader Anthony Albanese, calling for reforms to the laws that prevent people with disabilities from voting.

“It is extremely disappointing that, despite significant advocacy from DSA and others in the disability sector, these discriminatory laws are still in place,” Down Syndrome Australia chief executive Ellen Skladzien said. “Every Australian should have the right to have their say in the election.’’

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