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Five easy steps to make General Elections 2004 disabled-friendly

Nearly more than 40 million disabled people in India cannot play any role in India's democratic processes. These are the disabled persons of the country, a uniquely disenfranchised group. It is not that just the polling booths or ballot papers are inaccessible for them; even the polling officers are not sensitive to the needs of a disabled voter.

It is indeed very unfortunate that even in the forthcoming General Elections - the first of the 21st century - our polling booths will still be inaccessible and hostile to disabled persons across India.

The Convener of Disabled Rights Group, Javed Abidi, presents five simple ways in which India's disable persons -- the country's so far invisible electorate -- can be helped to exercise its franchise.

Problem 1: The very first problem that disabled people encounter when they go out to vote is that of transport. Our public transportation systems are still not accessible or barrier-free. If orthopaedically impaired people, especially those on wheelchairs, cannot even enter the buses, etc, then how do they reach the polling booths? It is not that they do not want to be a part of the electoral process or that there is any lack of will on their part to vote, but it is the failure of the State to provide disabled friendly transport that defranchises millions of orthopaedically disabled voters in the very first instance.

Solution: The Election Commission must issue firm directives to the Central Government as well as to all the State Governments to ensure that all our public transport authorities are sensitised about this situation and that every effort must be made to ensure that orthopaedically disabled people are able to reach the polling booths on the given day -- bus drivers must stop the bus on seeing disabled voters; bus conductors should ensure that the bus stops for long enough for the disabled voter to move in with safety and dignity; the route should be such that the bus stops as close to the polling booth as possible, among others.

Problem 2: The second problem that people with mobility impairments or orthopaedic disabilities face are the barriers/barricades put up by security agencies. These are normally put at a reasonable distance (sometimes as much as half a kilometre) to stop normal traffic, especially motor cars, etc, at a certain distance from polling booths. Voters (including those who are visually or hearing impaired) can walk the necessary distance but voters on crutches, artificial limbs, calipers and wheelchair users face tremendous problem in covering that unnecessary extra distance to be able to reach the polling booth. This puts them to great indignity and hardship.

Solution: The Election Commission must issue firm directives to all security agencies that vehicles (cars, scooters, motorised tri-wheelers and even hand tri-cycles) should be allowed to go right up to the polling booth, or as close as it is possible, so that the distance that a mobility impaired person has to cover is the least that is possible. If the security agencies so desire, special stickers can still be issued to ward off any perception of any danger or threat!

Problem 3: Finally, when mobility-impaired persons reach the polling station, unfortunately they encounter at least a few steps. Our experience -- based on feedback received from thousands of disabled people -- says that mostly these three or five steps become an insurmountable hurdle between, say, a wheelchair user, and the EVM. At this stage, the concerned person is left with no other option but to seek the help of people who are present to lift her/his wheelchair. This unfortunate scenario exists in spite of the fact that the Parliament of this country passed a legislation entitled 'The Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995' which promises non-discrimination in the built environment. At another place, the law mandates it upon the concerned authorities "to take such other steps to ensure barrier-free environment in public places, work places, public utilities, schools and other institutions." It has now been over eight years since this law was enacted and this would be the third election since then. As far as the disability sector is concerned, we have consistently been asking the Election Commission to ensure that the electoral process, particularly voting, is made disabled-friendly, accessible and barrier-free. It is indeed very unfortunate that even in the forthcoming General Elections -- the first of the 21st century -- our polling booths will still be inaccessible and hostile to a mobility impaired person, especially a wheelchair user.

Solution: This seems to be a long-term problem. However, the solution is rather simple and short! Put ramps -- wooden ones, like the ones that the country put up when Stephen Hawking visited. We can show you how to do this at a very low cost; otherwise, any ordinary carpenter can! This issue is critical to lakhs, if not millions, of wheelchair user voters.

A polling booth does not result overnight. We presume that there are a lot of preparations that are made. Wooden ballis (rods) are rented to make barricades; qanats (tents) are put up, a few tables and chairs are arranged or rented, EVMs are transported and so on. In other words, the Election Commission or the concerned authorities must be spending some Rs 10,000 to Rs 15,000, or more, per polling booth. If so, then why can't the Election Commission or the concerned authorities spend about Rs 500 to Rs 2,000 (depending on the size of the ramp) on making the polling station accessible to mobility impaired voters?

Problem 4: The above three problems are specific to the needs of people with orthopaedic disabilities and/or mobility impairments. A visually impaired person or a speech/hearing impairment person does not face those problems. She/he is able to reach the polling booth because their disability does not affect their mobility. However, both face unique problems on reaching the polling booths.

As far as the visually impaired voters are concerned, they are unable to see either the number or the symbol of the candidate and therefore are not in a position to vote independently. Even if they have an escort with them, it violates their right of secrecy and, of course, affects their sense of dignity. Why should a visually impaired man/woman have to take help from his/her wife or husband, or father or mother or son or daughter? Why should it be presumed that the family would have the same political choice? What if the husband wants to vote for the BJP, while the wife wants to vote for the Congress? While to some it may seem almost like a humorous situation or a joke, in reality it leads to a feeling of helplessness and a sense of indignity. Besides, it may also lead to marital discord!

Earlier, the elections were conducted by way of ballot paper and the Election Commission gave excuses such as how could they print lakhs of ballot papers in Braille? What, of course, did not occur to the Chief Election Commissioners of that era was that merely the blind voters of a particular constituency should be identified and then only that many ballot papers should be printed in Braille!

Now we have entered the era of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs). This was an excellent opportunity for the country to have made the proverbial paradigm shift. Just with the help of speech software, easily available all over the country (with the help of which now we have 'talking' computers), the EVMs could have become friendly and accessible to our blind and visually impaired voters. However, the insensitivity and the apathy of the Election Commission and its authorities have ensured that this has not happened and even today (in the 21st century!). When a visually impaired person reaches the polling booth, she/he is completely helpless when it comes to exercising her/his constitutional right. How does a blind voter decide as to which number to press? How does she/he do it independently, with her/his right to secrecy and sense of dignity intact?

Solution: The only short-term solution that is available, and can be implemented easily and at a very low cost, is to print numbers in Braille on plastic sheets and then to cut out those numbers and stick them on to the EVMs with the help of glue. It would not cost the Election Commission or the concerned authorities more than a few rupees per EVM to do this but it would empower the visually impaired voters of this country, the worth of which can not be weighed even in gold. Election Commission must give serious consideration to this suggestion/demand.

The long-term solution, of course, is to make use of the speech software and to modify the EVMs (Braille signage: tactile numbering) for them to be accessible and friendly to the millions of visually impaired voters of India.

Problem 5: As far as hearing/speech impaired voters are concerned, their problem is the most unique. Visibly, they are not disabled and their Voter ID does not identify them as a person with disability (the demand that we had raised at the time of Mr T.N. Seshan, the one that he surprisingly rejected). So how do the securitywalas or the staff of the polling booth recognise them and give them the necessary attention? Many a times it has been reported to us in the past that their hearing/speech impairment is either laughed at or joked upon, or unfortunately sometimes the staff even thinks that they are faking it. The Election Commission has got special queues made this time for disabled voters! We wonder that if a few hearing impaired persons were to make the mistake of using this queue, would the security personnel be aware of the fact that their handicap is invisible in nature? Or, would they shoo them away or worse, lathi charge them? Also, the staff at the polling booth is normally not very receptive, leave alone sensitive to the communication needs of a speech/hearing-impaired voter of this country. Sometimes they are made to stand at one side (idhar ruko, abhi time nahi hai) and at other times, they are just sent away.

Solution: The Election Commission must send a firm circular to all concerned (security agencies as well as the staff on election duty) making them aware of this problem and sensitising them on this issue.

For details, contact:
Disabled Rights Group, B-5/199, Ground Floor, Safdarjung Enclave, New Delhi 110 029. Tel/fax: 91-11-26175014, 26176062.