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A silent battle for an equal right to vote

Persons with disabilities have been fighting for long for their right to vote on a par with other citizens.

delhi Updated: Apr 15, 2019 19:36 IST
Manoj Sharma
Manoj Sharma
New Delhi
battle,equal right,vote
Specially abled people at an awareness programme on ‘accessible elections’, organised recently by the Chief Electoral Officer, Delhi, in collaboration with an NGO.(Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)

A S Narayanan was 42 when he first voted in an election. He waited this long to exercise his franchise not because he was indifferent to the democratic process, but because he is deaf, and thought casting his vote would be very difficult.

“I had no information about how someone like me could vote,” says Narayanan, 52, talking to HT through a sign language expert. In 2009, he decided to take his 12-year-old son with him to help him vote in the general elections. “As I had thought, casting the vote turned out to be quite a herculean task. I could not communicate with polling personnel, who did not understand sign language. Deafness is a disability that people cannot see, and that makes matters worse,” says Narayanan.

In the 2014 general elections, he voted again but his experience was not different. “I had to communicate with the polling staff by writing my queries on slips. A lot of people like me have to return without voting. There should be basic training on sign language to volunteers at the polling booths or there should be an informative video in sign language that the deaf can refer to,” says Narayanan, who is also the founder president of the National Association of the Deaf (NAD).

On April 6, Narayanan, along with many other persons with disabilities (PwDs), attended an awareness programme on ‘accessible elections’ organised by the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO), Delhi, in collaboration with Action for Ability Development and Inclusion (AADI), an NGO. According to World Bank data, India has 40 to 80 million persons with disabilities. The 2011 census pegged this figure at 26.8 million, with the National Capital Territory of Delhi accounting for 2.34 lakh, a number disputed by disability rights activists, who say that the actual figure is much higher.

Persons with disabilities have been fighting for long for their right to vote on a par with other citizens. Voters having one of the 21 disabilities, mentioned by the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016, are termed as voters with disabilities. The 21 disabilities include blindness, low vision, dwarfism, locomotor disability, intellectual disability, mental illness, among others.

For the PwD category, the barriers to electoral participation, experts say, have been many: inadequate or inaccessible voter education, difficulties in voter registration and physical access to polling stations , inability to vote independently and privately, and the absence of or inappropriate assistance from poll personnel. So far, the focus has mostly been on wheelchairs, the ramps
and braille, which many activists call the one-size-fits-all approach. No wonder then persons with disabilities will tell you there is a long way to go before the elections can truly become accessible for them.

“Three weeks ago, I went to an election registration office in east Delhi’s Jhilmil colony to replace my damaged Electors Photo Identity Card (EPIC). The first officer I met there was not willing to believe that I was blind, and was very rude to me. I visited the office at least seven times, and could get my card only after I called up the voter helpline and complained. And instead of sending the card to my house, they asked me to collect it from the registration office, ” says Neeraj Kumar, 36, who is attending a training programme at the Blind Relief Association’s vocational training centre in central Delhi. Kumar says he had last cast his vote with the help of his wife in the 2015 Delhi assembly elections. “As of now, it is impossible for people like me to have a secret ballot.”

Rajpal, 44, and his wife are both blind and have always voted with assistance. (A companion is allowed to voters under Section 49N in The Conduct of Elections Rules in case of blindness and physical infirmity). In the Delhi assembly elections, his driver helped him cast his vote. “He guided my hand to the candidate I wanted to vote for and I pressed the button. It feels terrible to have voted like this,” says Rajpal, a computer trainer for the visually impaired. Talking of the availability of braille stickers on EVM machines, he says, “One needs to understand that not every visually impaired person knows Braille.”

To make the electoral process truly inclusive, Rajpal adds, political parties too need to be sensitive to their needs. Their websites, he says, should have disabled-friendly features, conforming to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2. 0. “Maybe people with disabilities should be allowed to vote electronically from their homes; mobile technology can play a big role in making elections accessible to people like me,” adds Rajpal.

In fact, according to the strategic framework on accessible elections finalised at a two-day national consultation held last year, the EC had agreed to look at alternative voting methods like advance voting or early voting, voting from home, postal vote, transport assistance to PwDs or mobile polling stations for physically challenged people.

Among the minimum facilities and services announced by Chief Electoral Officer (Delhi) during the awareness programme for people with disabilities include ramps, wheelchairs, accessible toilets, braille stickers on EVMs , volunteers with sign language training at polling stations, magnifying glasses for low-vision voters, dummy ballot sheets for the blind, doorstep transport, among others.

The highlight of the ‘accessible elections’ is an android PwD app that enables persons with disabilities to identify and register themselves and avail of some of the customised services such as wheelchair and transport. While the CEO’s office has no data on the number of PwD voters in Delhi, about 36,000 people had registered on the app in Delhi till April 9.

Disability rights activists hope that the assured minimum facilities would not remain on paper. Satendra Singh, a well-known disability rights activist, filed several complaints to the Election Commissioner about the flouting of rules and guidelines during the Delhi elections in 2015. “There was awful shortage of wheelchairs in 2015, causing a lot of hardships to persons with disabilities. What needs to be understood is that disability is diverse, and a one-size-fits-all approach does not work,”he says. “Though we are India’s largest minority, we are not a vote bank, and so remain marginalised. In fact, the biggest barrier is not the infrastructure, or lack of communication, rather it is the attitude of society at large.”

Singh says as Delhi readies to go to polls on May 12, it should learn from the experiences of neighbouring Ghaziabad that voted on April 11. “Even wheelchairs were not available at several polling booths. I requested transport, an ambulance was sent, which may not be an accessible transport for every disabled person,” says Singh, who suffers from disability in his legs due to polio. Activists say there is no clarity yet on what kind of transport will be provided to persons with disabilities in Delhi.

The Chief Electoral Officer (Delhi), Ranbir Singh, did not speak to HT, citing ill health.

Subham Khansili, 21, who suffers from cerebral palsy, is elated that he will be voting for the first time on May 12. A visibly excited Khansili, who got his voter card three weeks ago, says he would go with his mother to vote. “I expect to get all the promised facilities and services and hope that
the polling station is not too far away from where I live. The street around my house has potholes, making it difficult for me to travel in my wheelchair,” he says, adding, “For me, the biggest issue in the elections is jobs for young people with disabilities.”

Mohit Kejriwal, 23, who is blind, says the EC should also ensure polling stations are not unnecessarily crowded. “Workers of political parties set up their counters there, creating chaos. Some of them even offer help to cast our votes. How can I trust them? Our struggle is far from over,” he says.

First Published: Apr 14, 2019 04:37 IST