Enabling the Disabled

Why do people with disabilities find it difficult to participate in the electoral process?

WrittenBy:Somi Das
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Bunty Solanki, 32,contracted polio at a very early age which left him crippled for life. This hasn’t stopped him from living a dignified and self-sufficient life and participating on equal footing in the electoral process. With pride in his tone, he declares that he has exercised his right to vote for five times in the past. But his enthusiasm goes down when he talks about the facilities at the polling station. His journey to the polling booth is fraught with inconvenience and apathy from fellow voters and at times from electoral officers. Yet Solanki, a retail shop owner,is undeterred and says he will step out on December 4, 2013 to cast his vote. So will a large section of the disabled community who constitute 1.7 per cent (according to 2001 census) of Delhi’s population.

Solanki can take heart from the fact that at least the voting facilities aren’t as bad as they were in the late Nineties and early 2000s. The credit for this goes to the arduous fight undertaken by disability movement leaders against an apathetic Election Commission and Central and State governments.

Fight for Right

The cause of the disabled got a political voice for the first time in the spring of 2004, before the general elections. Under the leadership of Javed Abidi, who is now the Director of National Centre Employment For Disabled, the disabled community fought for its right to vote in a dignified way. Till then, visually impaired voters were not allowed a companion of their choice to cast vote. The voters had to depend on the help of an electoral officer – which immediately nullified their right to a secret ballot. Wooden ramps were also not made available for easy movement for physically challenged voters.

In April 2004, Abidi went on a fast unto death outside the Election Commission’s office demanding better facilities at polling booths that would enable people with disabilities to exercise their right to vote. The poll commission failed to respond in an appropriate manner. Disappointed, Abidi wrote a letter to the Supreme Court which was treated as a Public Interest Litigation. The demands were:

• Wooden ramps at polling stations

• Braille facilities offered in the electronic voting machines

• Separate queues and special arrangements at polling stations

• Training for polling station personnel to be sensitive to the needs of the disabled

The Supreme Court saw the importance and the implications of the demands and directed the Election Commission to meet them with immediate effect.

How Far Have We Succeeded?

We spoke to Abidi and asked him to assess if elections have really become disabled-friendly since 2004. He says, “If you talk about making elections disabled-friendly, certainly, the scenario is far better today than it was a decade ago. The elections are fairly accessible now”. However, he adds,that though the guidelines are in place, their implementation has not been thought out.

The guidelines of the Election Commission for the ongoing Assembly Elections and 2014 General Elections are as follows:

1. Physically challenged electors shall be given priority for entering the polling booth.

2. All necessary assistance should be provided to them at the polling stations, while duly ensuring the secrecy of their votes in accordance with ECI guidelines.

3. Ramps should be provided at the polling stations to facilitate physically challenged voters, as per the directions of the Hon’ble Supreme Court.

4. All Electronic Voting Machines post-2006 have Braille marking to help people with visual impairment to vote.

While the guidelines address the basic issue of accessibility, the on-ground reality is a far cry from what appears on paper. The Chief Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities,Prasanna Kumar Pincha, who is the first disabled person to take on this position said, “In 2009 Assembly Elections, when I went to vote, there was no Braille marking on the EVM. When I questioned the electoral officer, he gave an evasive answer. I wasn’t the commissioner then.  I only wonder what kind of behaviour would be meted out to a person with disability not in a position of power”.Abidi adds, “It wouldn’t come as a surprise to me if any polling officer misbehaves with people with disability. The election commission needs to revise its guidelines from time to time and special focus should be given to the training and sensitisation of the officers”.

What is the way forward?

Apart from facilities at polling stations and training of election officers, there are several other issues related to making the process of voting more accessible to physically challenged people. These issues are addressed neither by the government in general nor by the Election Commission with respect to elections. Pincha says, “Even though Braille-enabled EVMs allow people to vote, it still doesn’t allow one the right to secret ballot. Again, Braille only helps the literate, what about the visually-impaired who are not educated? Also, add to these the ordeal of a person inflicted with profound and multiple disabilities. Shouldn’t they have the right to record their votes? Shouldn’t the Election Commission make arrangements so that they are able to record their vote at home?”

The introduction of postal ballot, mobile polling booths or facilities to take physically challenged people to polling booths could address the issues raised by Pincha.The models followed in Western countries could also provide some solutions. The Accessible Ballot Marking System as mandated by Help America Vote Act (HAVA) enables blind or people with hearing impairment to register their vote on a telephonic device thus ensuring the right to secret ballot. We could also take a leaf out of the Australian model where call centres under the Australian Electoral Commission  make it easy for visually impaired electors to record their votes over the phone after due verification.

Disabled people as vote-bank

Limiting the discourse to merely making voting accessible to the disabled is only a halfhearted attempt at bringing these people into the mainstream.  As long as people with disability do not become a collective political voice, they would never be a significant vote-bank for political parties to care about their needs.  Delhi Election Commission has been organising nukkar nataks and rallies to encourage more women and youth to come out and vote, as their turnout rate in the last elections was poor. A similar awareness campaign for the disabled could work wonders in increasing voter enrollment and turnout among the disabled community. However, when we spoke to the Election Commission, the officer concerned said that they had no such programme for the disabled.

Abidi, however, says that in a vast country like India, the Election Commission alone cannot be held responsible for working towards reforms. He says, “If the Election Commission doesn’t fulfill its duty of conducting elections in a free and fair manner I would blame it. But it is the duty of the leaders who led the disability movement and the political parties to address the issue of better facilities for disabled and to unite them as a political voice”.

The apathy of political parties towards the cause of the disabled is reflected in their election manifestoes. The disabled hardly find any mention in the Congress Manifesto 2009, the words Scheduled castes and Scheduled Tribes are mentioned 21 times and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) is mentioned five times in reference to what steps are being taken for their betterment. The word “disabled” appears only once and it is bracketed with “elderly” under the “security of those at special risk” section. The Bharatiya Janata Party fared better with an entire paragraph dedicated to the steps it would take for the welfare of the disabled under the section “Care of the disabled- Integrating the differently abled”. Abidi says, “It was because of the momentum gained by the 2004 movement that rights of the disabled got mentioned in the manifestoes of national parties like Congress, BJP and CPI(M), even though it would only be a half page mention. However, the regional chapters of the movement failed to make the regional parties take us seriously as a political voice and address our needs in their manifestoes”.

The fact that the disabled community features low in the priority list of the political class is clear from the way the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Draft Bill has been pending since 2011. It was expected to be introduced in the Parliament in the 2012 Winter Session. The Bill, if passed, would allow people with disability to cast their vote through postal ballot. However, there is no sign of any forward movement even though the general elections are set to be held in 2014. All that the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment website says about the proposed legislation is – “a Committee under the chairpersonship of Dr Sudha Kaul, Vice Chairperson, Indian Institute of Cerebral Palsy, Kolkata, to draft a new legislation for persons with disabilities, replacing the present Persons with Disabilities (Equal Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995 has submitted its Report including a draft bill  (called The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill, 2011 and a note on its financial implications  to the Ministry on 30.6.2011”.Speaking on the proposed Bill, Anurag Mittal, the National Coordinator of Association For Democratic Reforms says, “issues like saving criminal politicians and amending the RTI Act to not bring political parties under the ambit of the right take precedence in Parliament over the welfare of marginalised groups. That is why such bills keep pending for years together”.

Disability activist Mithu Alur in her article “The Hundred Million Who Refuse To Be Invisible”drives home the point of political marginalisation of the disabled with the argument that even government flagship programmes and welfare schemes do not take into account the needs of the disabled. She writes, “A glaring example is the government’s flagship programme of Universal Education for All, another name of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. Most of the SSA schools are not accessible to the disabled. Despite the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) — the government’s main early-childhood programme — physical inaccessibility and problems of mobility, coupled with a kind of ‘apartheid system’ practised and perpetuated (perhaps unwittingly) by the government have been responsible for the fact that 75 per cent of children with disability do not receive any service. These facts are reflected in major reports as well as in the World Bank Report 2007, done in conjunction with the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment”. Clearly, the disabled community that constitutes 2.1 per cent of the Indian population, unlike SC, ST, OBC and the economically weaker section of society is not a vote-bank for the parties.

Srinivasulu, the chief of the Andhra Pradesh chapter of the Disability movement says, “Being empowered voters is not enough. More and more people with disability should fight elections. Whether they win or lose is not the issue. In fact,in 2004 we foisted independent candidates with disability against the Chief Minister and the leader of the Opposition to shame them and highlight their apathy towards us.”

However, for the disabled, being a significant vote-bank or translating their votes into government goodies are not the only motivators for wanting to exercise their adult franchise. They also vote so they can participate in the decision-making process. A decision-making process which seems to be out of their reach as of now.


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