Volume 4 Issue 7 - April 01, 2006

Disabled people demand accessible voting process: Voices from the ground

For this issue of D.N.I.S. we had approached the Chief Election Commissioner’s office for an interview to seek responses to questions that had been trickling in from disabled peoples’ organisations and individuals on the issues of access and enfranchising disabled people. The body that undertakes one of the world’s largest administrative and democratic exercise could not find the time to answer a handful of queries that would have, perhaps, given some hope to disabled voters who believe in this country and more importantly in their right to its citizenship.

We were promised an interview. We were even told that Deputy Election Commissioner Anand Kumar has been assigned this task and yet, after having waited for this almost ten days, the interview did not materialise. When the deadline for this issue got over last night (31 March) we decided to not wait any longer.

Ahead of polling for the five State Assemblies later this month, Parvinder Singh spoke to disability activists who are battling hard to make polling process accessible for disabled people. This is what they had to say on their struggle for the implementation of their right to accessible voting process, which has eluded them even after five decades of democracy, a decade of Disability Act and a standing order by the Supreme Court.

Picture Arman, Project Coordinator, Disability Law Unit based in Assam

Arman Ali, Project Coordinator with Disability Law Unit, Shishu Saroti, Guwahati (Assam): “Disabled people are confined to their homes because of lack of access. This is not going to allow them to ever become a political entity or a vote bank. We are forcefully pitching the agenda of accessible booths and polling process. We have written to the Chief Electoral Officer, Assam and Deputy Election Commissioners of various districts to take necessary steps in this direction. I have also written to District Collectors of all 27 districts. It is really sad and discouraging that these communications largely go unacknowledged. This clearly highlights that the issue of political participation of disabled people is taken very lightly by officials. There is a clear lack of will amongst the political parties. We have been urging them to include the rights and needs of disabled people in their agenda and mention these in the manifestos. They try to woo voters from all subgroups except the disabled people. According to the census, there are an estimated 5,30,300 disabled people in Assam and if one was to look at N.G.O. figures it is 17, 79,968. This is not a small number, yet they remain neglected. Statements by election officials have been appearing in the media stating that polling booths will have ramps. We have demanded Braille enabled voting machines as the Supreme Court directive is not merely about ramps. We will keep a watch on the polling days.”

Picture of Rajiv, Project Coordinator, Disability Law Unit, based in Tamil Nadu

Rajiv Rajan, Project Coordinator, Disability Law Unit, Vidya Sagar, Chennai (Tamil Nadu): “The issue of accessible polling as subject has grabbed the attention of Election Commission and they have been making statements and promises of ramps at least. But we have written to them against narrowing down the issue to ramps and not thinking about visually impaired and hearing impaired. There are approximately 18,00,000 disabled people in Tamil Nadu and most of them are not able to vote because of architectural and other barriers at the polling booths. We approached political parties for inclusion of demands of disabled people in the manifestos. Reserving three per cent of the candidature of all political parties for disabled people or activists from disability sector is one of the demands. I will be highly surprised if these demands make it to the pages of the election manifestos. It was quiet disappointing when A.I.A.D.M.K., a powerful party in the state, even refused to meet us. These elections are a golden opportunity for being heard at this crucial juncture, as well as of being included in the whole election process. We urged for support from state and district partners of National Disability Network across the country in getting our issues across to the electoral offices and political parties/alliances in both Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Do support us by sending faxes, e-mails, telegrams, letters, etc to the Election Commission and political parties/alliances.”

Picture of Muthamma B. Devaya associated with Disability Rights Initiative from H.R.L.N. in Kerala

Muthamma B. Devaya, Disability Rights Initiative, Human Rights Law Network (Kerala): “We have a long way to go before political identity of disabled people is established as a vote bank and they are seen as empowered citizens who matter in the number game of Indian Elections. The Election Commission seems to be proactive in one sense as its officials have been talking about ramps, but at the same time one finds them reducing the scope of access for visually and hearing impaired. Disability groups here have been highlighting the issue of Braille enabled Electronic Voting Machines. For politicisation of disabled peoples’ demands, we have been also approaching political parties. I feel one of the positive developments this time was the presence of representatives of various political parties during the State Political Convention of People with Disabilities on 20 March. We were also pleasantly surprised that there was a representative from the Election Commission as well, though the official did not speak or present the official side.”

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