Geeta Devi (name changed upon request) accompanied her husband, a person with physical disability, to a polling booth in Dehradun during the 2012 assembly elections.
The temporary ramp lodged at the booth was too steep for her to push her husband’s wheelchair. After repeated pleas, some booth personnel came forward to help her, but not without uttering something humiliating.
The couple returned without casting their votes.
In another story, a booth located in a private school in the state capital did not have a ramp. A 35-year-old person with a movement disorder refused to undergo the “indignity” of being physically lifted by the security personnel there.
There may be around 1.85 lakh persons with disability in Uttarakhand, but the polling exercise does not seem to be a very disabled-friendly activity in the state.
Voters with different types of disability often have to face lack of facilities, including no or non-standard ramps and insensitivity at the hands of polling personnel when they attempt to exercise their franchise.
In its 2004 ruling, the Supreme Court had said that all polling booths should provide facilities like permanent or temporary ramps for seamless access and Braille-enabled electronic voting machines (EVMs) to persons with disability. It had mandated sensitisation of poll personnel towards the special needs of such people and also instructed election authorities to ensure sufficient publicity in advance through print and electronic media about facilities available for them at the polling booth.
Polling booths are stationed on the ground floor. Yet, many booths did not have barrier-free access and lacked even temporary ramps facilitating free movement of persons with physical disability in the 2012 polls. Disabled rights activists have raised concerns about the absence of a mechanism to ensure correct placement of temporary ramps at a stable, low gradient.
“If ramps are not placed according to the standard accessibility norms, they can prove to be problematic and dangerous,” said Rajiv Jauhari of Dehradun-based NGO Talent Enablers.
Lack of awareness
According to the directorate of census operations, Uttarakhand, has 1,85,272 persons with different types of disabilities. However, there is no record available regarding the number of electors with disability.
There is also poor publicity in the media about access-friendly polling environment available for them at the booths, despite only four days remaining for Uttarakhand to go to polls on May 7. “Many electors with disability choose to stay away from voting because they are simply not aware of the special facilities being offered to them. The Supreme Court had directed election authorities to sufficiently publicise facilities available so that they can become aware beforehand and feel encouraged to vote. However, not much seems to have been done in this regard,” said Rizwan Ali, legal advisor and outreach coordinator of Latika Roy Foundation (LRF), an organisation working with persons with disability. The LRF had in 2009 filed a right to information application in the office of the chief electoral officer of the state regarding facilities available for such voters.
Many a time, electors with disability have to bear the brunt of impolite behavior or insensitive remarks at the hands of polling personnel, as well as the security staff stationed inside and outside the booths. In few cases, polling staff were uncertain about the provisions of rule 49n of the Conduct of Election Rules, which provides for permitting a companion to accompany a blind/infirm elector to assist him while casting the vote.
Persons with disabilities like physical disability (persons with mobility problems, cerebral palsy, visual disability/low vision and hearing) and intellectual disability (mental retardation, Down syndrome and Autism) have faced problems while trying to vote.
Vikas Sharma, a social activist and founder-chairman of New Delhi-based Disabled Helpline that has a network in Uttarakhand, said sensitisation is a far cry in a society that excludes persons with disability at large. “Many electors with disability want to be made a part of the mainstream voting process and do not like any kind of preferential treatment given to them. There is an urgent need to educate people, including polling and security staff at booths, to be courteous to them,” Sharma said.
Charity vs right based approach
Disabled rights groups claim some cases have been reported in the state in the past where persons with intellectual disabilities were allowed to vote only after much resistance despite them holding a valid voter ID. The reason? Most cannot distinguish between mental illness and mental retardation simply because they know little about the issue.
“Polling staff becomes either completely insensitive or over-sympathetic. We need to replace the charity-based approach with right-based approach in providing assistance to electors with disabilities,” added Ali.
When contacted, joint chief electoral officer Saujanya said that the Election Commission of Uttarakhand will ensure facilities like ramps, Braille-enabled ballot papers/ EVM machines and a helper for inform the electors. “We are also training the polling staff to provide all necessary support to disabled voters at the polling booths and be polite to them,” she told HT.