Volume 2 Issue 8 - April 15, 2004

Poor access to polling stations is a bar to democracy

DNIS News Network -- The lack of facilities at polling booths for disabled voters has been highlighted by the campaigning NGO Disabled Rights Group (DRG).

The group said despite the fact that disabled people were guaranteed equal opportunities with the passing of the Disability Act back in 1995, the situation for the 14th Lok Sabha elections had not changed. It will be the fourth General Election since the passing of the Bill but facilities for crores of voters are still not provided at polling stations across the country. The group's Convener and spokesman Javed Abidi pointed out that disabled people too are citizens of India and asked: "Do we not have the right to cast our vote?"

Five "easy steps" were suggested to ensure the 2004 elections were disabled-friendly. (See feature 'Five easy steps to make general elections 2004 disabled-friendly', DNIS, April 01, 2004.) The initial journey to the polling station is a problem for many, as buses are not equipped to take wheelchairs and drivers are often unwilling to allow time for elderly or infirm passengers to board and get off buses safely. DRG wants all drivers to be instructed to be sensitive to the needs of all passengers on polling day.

The second obstacle comes at the entry to the polling station as, due to security concerns, vehicles are not allowed near the booths. DRG has demanded special concessions for vehicles carrying disabled people. But even after a disabled voter makes it to the door of a polling station, they face the biggest problem: a flight of stairs. Some are lucky enough to be assisted by onlookers who will lift a wheelchair up the steps, but this is by no means a dignified solution for the person being manhandled. It is also the case that many are simply turned away at this point. The solution, says DRG, is to make it mandatory for polling station officers to provide ramps at all stations, and to ensure that polling booths are situated on the ground floor of stations.

It is not only wheelchair users who face difficulties at the polling booth: the right of a secret ballot is denied to visually impaired voters who must take a companion with them in order to place their vote. In some cases even this measure is not allowed. However, the solution is simple: to paste Braille symbols onto the Electronic Voting Machines, so that secrecy is maintained.

Hearing impaired voters also face harassment and abuse from polling officials, who fail to understand their needs and difficulties.

DRG is demanding that all polling officials must be sensitised to the needs of all disabled voters in order to ensure the forthcoming election is India's first truly democratic poll of all sections of society.

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