‘Engaging a New Generation for Accessible Governance and Elections’ (ENGAGE) is a civic and political leadership course for young people with disabilities. It builds their leadership skills in their communities while providing hands-on community engagement experience. ENGAGE addresses the barriers that young persons with disabilities often face – usually a combination of ableism and ageism – when seeking to engage in civic and political life. It provides an opportunity to increase their knowledge of civic life and to build the skills needed to be leaders in their communities.
Intersectional analysis to inform programme content: To understand the barriers to civic and political participation facing people with disabilities in each country, IFES undertakes an intersectionality assessment. This is a unique framework designed to engage people with overlapping social identities and determine a structured plan for achieving specific agreed goals. The assessment is then used to adapt materials and contextualise the programme to the relevant operating environment. In the ENGAGE pilot in 2018 in Dominican Republic, for example, the assessment revealed that young people with disabilities had less knowledge about the political structure of the country and avenues for engagement than those without disabilities. In Ukraine, it determined that an ENGAGE course tailored to the needs of young women with disabilities would help address an opportunity gap facing many for participating in political processes.
Partnering with local organisations and leaders: For each implementation, IFES also partners with local Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and Organisations for Persons with Disabilities (OPDs) to ensure that the voices of young people with disabilities are reflected in the training materials. Local partners also help conduct outreach, identify participants and help train trainers. In Sri Lanka, the Center for Disability Education, Research and Practice at the University of Colombo led participant recruitment and selection and led the training, as they best understood the challenges and context. Support from Election Management Bodies ( EMBs, Election Management Bodies) also helps advance the programme. In Indonesia, the EMBs were supportive of both the programme and IFES’s OPD partner. In Bougainville, the Office of the Bougainville Electoral Commissioner facilitated the elections portion of the training. They supported the mock election by providing space and election materials for participants to practice voting, some of whom had not yet voted formally in an electoral event.
ENGAGE is a global tool that exemplifies the IFES approach to non-formal civic education. IFES partners with local organisations, contextualising content in specific countries or regions and reaching diverse groups of young people who neither engage in, nor have access to, institutional education settings. It is specifically designed for young persons with disabilities, who are often not considered for political participation and community engagement projects. It includes professional and personal development opportunities such as internships, community action projects and site visits to Parliaments, EMBs and other government authorities. To date, ENGAGE has reached 150 young people with disabilities and been implemented in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville and six countries around the world – the Dominican Republic, Indonesia, Guyana, Papua New Guinea (PNG), Sri Lanka and Ukraine.
Working with local partners and young people has increased ENGAGE’s flexibility and its ability to adapt to different civic environments and across the electoral cycle. In IFES’ experience, OPDs, CSOs and youth-led organisations are often able to reach those people who may be excluded in democracy and governance programming. They are also able to work in closed and closing civic spaces. This often makes these and other local organisations the most effective in implementing programmes such as ENGAGE.
IFES adapts the programme, in coordination with partners, to respond to electoral events in the country. This can be in the immediate lead up to elections or between elections, as well as for global events – such as the COVID-19 pandemic – where a completely online version of the course was created. The context in which ENGAGE takes place also informs the content and opportunities for participants to engage in their communities following the programme.
Sustained youth engagement in civic and political life
As seen through IFES’ impact assessment in the Dominican Republic, as well as through its trainings globally, ENGAGE participants demonstrate increased political and civic engagement. This happens not only immediately after the course but also in the medium to long term, primarily because both the course content and the hands-on activities are built into the curriculum. In Sri Lanka, course participants met with CSOs and the national Election Commission, and took part in a mock election to put ENGAGE topics, such as electoral processes, disability rights and leadership, into practice. In Indonesia, despite the course being entirely online, participants took a virtual tour of the General Elections Commission (KPU), Indonesia’s national EMB. These, and interactive exercises embedded throughout the course, reflect the ‘learning-by-doing ‘approach that encourages active citizenship.
Youth-led community projects
In Guyana, several ENGAGE alumni applied for, and received, funding for community projects. One group worked jointly to raise awareness of sexual and reproductive health for youth with disabilities, who often do not have access to information about their rights. Another group worked to install guardrails for the school of the blind, and had meetings with the Ministry of Education to further earlier commitments made to improve access to education to the blind.
Sustained youth engagement in civic and political life
Following the course, alumni continue to engage in public life; attending city council meetings, participating in elections, running as candidates and advocating for disability rights, among other issues. Following completion of the Ukraine ENGAGE course, one alumna ran in the 2020 local elections and was subsequently elected to the Kyiv Oblast Council.
In the Dominican Republic, three ENGAGE alumni were hired by the Central Electoral Board (JCE) and City Hall; ENGAGE also inspired the JCE to create its first-ever Disability Inclusion Policy. In Bougainville, three ENGAGE alumni served as poll workers in the 2019 Bougainville referendum. One ENGAGE alumnus used his leadership skills to serve as interim director of the first OPD in Bougainville.
In Indonesia, ENGAGE participants generated a list of recommendations for the KPU, which the EMB used to develop infographics for voters in Jakarta with disabilities. Seven participants also completed internships with the KPU and the Election Supervisory Board (Bawaslu), in order to continue their professional development. ENGAGE alumni also continue to re-engage in follow-on trainings. In Guyana, four alumni organised their own ENGAGE course for young people with disabilities; in PNG, the IFES trained ENGAGE alumni and members from the PNG Association of Disabled Persons to conduct election access assessments ahead of the 2022 national elections. The sustained engagement of ENGAGE alumni around the world stands as testament to the impact of the course on the long-term engagement persons with disabilities in civic and political life.