Fight for Accessible Elections.
When we turn 18 (or 21 in some countries), we all have the right to register and cast our vote. Some of us may choose to become more involved in politics, joining political parties or even standing for election at local or national levels. Yet many people are excluded from participating in political life and having a voice as citizens to choose their representatives. Persons with disabilities were the greatest minority, overlooked and excluded in the country’s governance, until we took it upon ourselves to become vocal and active citizens.
Disabled persons got their first law (PwD Act, 1995) and an official recognition as a group, the citizens with disabilities, but it was only on paper.
We had to sit in protest, threaten to immolate ourselves, just to get counted in Census 2001. Though the number was small, it was a recognition for a separate budget.
20th March: When the largest democracy was gearing up for the 14th Lok Sabha elections, fourth since the passing of the Act, no one thought of facilitating for voters with disabilities. It was then that we got together. In an unprecedented show of strength, India's disabled people came out of their shells on March 20 and demanded their share of attention from political parties by, for starters, including their needs in election manifestos. The landmark event was a State Level Convention at Bhubaneswar at 10 AM and a National Convention on political rights of disabled people in New Delhi at 3 PM. Around 400 people from across Odisha had an interface with leaders of 9 political parties (INC, BJP, BJD, CPI(M), CPI, Janata Dal, Samajwadi Party etc.) and submitted their Charter of Demand; and in Delhi 700 people from 17 States of India submitted their Charter of Demands to the major national Political Parties.
7th April: We constantly lobbied with leaders of opposition, election commissioners, elected representatives and media. We also formed a National Disability Network (NDN) and Dr Sruti Mohapatra formed the state level network OSDN. Odisha was a leader for other states of India. Finally, Election Commissioner issued a Circular on April 7 stating provision of wooden ramps at polling booths "wherever possible.'' Javed Abidi, who headed NDN, started a fast unto death at Delhi. In Odisha we sat on dharnas in front of all collector’s offices in 30 districts of Odisha.
19th April: On April 19, the Supreme Court passed an interim order for the State governments to provide wooden ramps in all polling booths across the country for the second phase of elections, and without fail in the last two phases on May 5 and May 10. Celebrations took place across India, in anticipation of the independence and opportunity to cast votes.
When Dr Sruti Mohapatra reached the polling booth to cast her vote, the booth seemed to scream out at her, ‘I am inaccessible’–there were steps, door steps, narrow space between tables, ballot box at a height. That day, she returned not being able to cast my vote.
Gearing towards making 2009 Elections Accessible.
For next five years, we continued with focused advocacy—writing letters to officials, elected Members of Parliament and Odisha assembly, Election Commission, media, doing various meetings, travelling across Odisha, to many other states, talking to people with disabilities of the importance and the necessity to vote, had group discussions, seminars and kept the buzz alive.
If not for anything else, the 2009 elections will be remembered as the first in the history of Indian democracy to be friendly to Persons with Disabilities (PwDs).
Some polling booths across the country made sure that people with different forms of disabilities could vote without difficulty
Major parties like the Congress, BJP and the CPM had special mention about the physically challenged in their manifestos.
When Dr Mohapatra reached polling booth. she was shocked to see that it was inaccessible—the wheel chair had to be lifted up the 3 steps in school, there was chaos to get 3 more persons to assist, the wheel chair was not getting into the room, there was no space between tables to move and the height of table and ballot box couldn’t be reached. And no one seemed to care. Not just the poll booth officer but also fellow voters were unsympathetic and irritated with the delay the wheelchair was causing. It was the fourth General Election since the passing of the 1995 Disability Act but facilities for millions of voters were still missing at polling stations across the country. Jubilant that she had cast her vote, Dr Mohapatra ignored the comments of the insensitive fellow voters, and returned with a determination to bring changes.
2014 was a similar story with the accessibility of booths being dependent on the whims and fancies of the Chief Election and State Election Commissioners. In Odisha, OSDN was unanimous in its demands, dharnas, candle light vigils and protest march. This led to 7 districts having made substantial progress towards accessibility. Another significant achievement was the mention of the disabled in party manifestos. To top it, the district of Cuttack in Odisha emerged as a model district in “Accessible Elections.”
The Cuttack administration took the challenge of mainstreaming electors who were PwDs and enhancing their participation in the electoral process and partnered with the DPOs and PwDs.
1. The National Consultation on Accessible Elections opened with an enthusiastic start.
2. Office of the Chief Electoral Officer, Odisha selected Swabhiman as member of State Level Committee for 2019 elections.
3. A state-level workshop on Accessible & Inclusive election for PwDs was held on 25th September at SC & ST Research and Training Institute, Bhubaneswar by Chief Electoral Officer of Odisha.
Rest of Odisha and most states saw voters with disabilities returning home for not being able to cast their votes. We continued with our relentless struggle which finally led the Government of India to announce 2019 Elections as “Accessible Elections”. For the first time, by the consistent effort of disability activists and NGOs and the mandate of RPwD Act, elections in India were officially geared towards participation of voters with disabilities.
Some of the adopted measures include;
State-wise identification of voters with disabilities
Personal facilitation of their voter registration forms and procedures
Training of polling officers and volunteers
Publication of Action for Accessible Elections in India—Strategic Framework on Accessible Elections.
Development of a mobile app called Voter Helpline in Indian Sign Language (ISL) which is available on launching of an Android-based mobile app.
In Gujarat, an innovative step was taken to provide a list of candidates in audio-format in addition to Braille.
Previously identified measures from the 2014 Lok Sabha Elections included Braille signage on the ballot unit of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs), construction of ramps, provision for voters with disabilities to enter polling stations without waiting in the queue and the facility to take wheelchairs inside polling stations.
Accessibility for PwD Voters in 2019.
It was a clear paradigm shift in 2019. The disabled, had suffered a lot of humiliation while trying to exercise their democratic rights. But in 2019, any disabled person could vote with pride. That was a big change. The change took 23 years to come. When we asked voters with disabilities about accessibility of the 2019 elections, they gave us mixed responses. Many were happy, many voters continued to grapple with inaccessible conditions to exercise their vote. The lack of sensitivity and awareness and non-existent or non-standard ramps at polling booths came out as a frequent response, while accessibility for persons with visual impairments was more readily available.
The war for visibility and acceptance as active citizens is far from over but we have won an important battle in 2019. From now, it’s just a few more steps.