The current polls are an opportunity to rid the system of its biases against the disabled.
The excitement of the upcoming general elections is palpable as voting day draws close. For the 2.68 crore persons with disabilities (according to the official census figures), it is doubtful whether they would be able to exercise their rights as voters with disabilities. The right to vote and to participate freely in elections is a fundamental as well as a statutory right in our country, guaranteed to all. As one of the most significant rights in a democracy, it becomes an obligation on the Election Commission to take steps to ensure the exercise of this right for all citizens, especially citizens with disabilities.
Participation of voters with disability in the past has only been confined to making polling sites accessible by providing ramps. While even this simple task of putting ramps in all polling sites is not being done, we need to think more deeply about electoral participation. Electoral participation is not limited to the actual casting of the vote, but planning about participation of voters with disability in the electoral process both before voting and during the actual voting.
There is need for a more concerted effort by stakeholders to enable the deepening of democracy throughout the electoral process - a process that begins much before voting. There is little or no attempt to ensure that persons with disabilities have access to election-related information and processes such as information about candidates, campaign publicity materials such as manifestos of political parties and voter registration information. Recently, a study conducted by the Centre for Internet and Society showed that an overwhelming majority of websites of political parties and those connected with the electoral process in India were inaccessible to disabled persons. This is but a minor example. Entire news stories and political campaigns are lost to voters with disabilities if they are not accessible.
Therefore, a multi-pronged approach involving media-houses, government and the EC is essential to ensure that political campaigns and information about elections are available to all voters. In addition, voters with disabilities need voter registration made accessible. A large number of voters are unable to vote because they have not registered due to voter registration sites being inaccessible and the process not being disabled-friendly.
The actual act of voting also needs careful attention. Electronic voting machines and voting sites should be accessible. The severely ill and disabled voters would find it impossible to travel to the voting sites and there should be mobile polling vans which can provide for voting by them, or transport needs to be arranged for access to voting sites. It is also the practice in several countries to have mobile voting where both voter registration and voting is done in one step for voters with disabilities.
Despite orders from the Supreme Court to make elections accessible to persons with disabilities in 2004, there were numerous barriers hindering their access and one hopes that these barriers are removed for the elections in 2014. These barriers include attitudinal barriers in failing to recognise the rights of persons with disabilities to be included in political processes and the lack of information on the part of election officials towards their needs, physical inaccessibility of polling sites (for example, pathways to and inside polling sites), inaccessibility of campaign materials (example: information about public meetings, political parties, candidates), lack of transportation to polling stations and alternate means of casting votes, difficulty in obtaining voting registration and information about polling booths and inaccessible EVMs.
There is an urgent need to address this issue to ensure that persons with disabilities, which form a sizable percentage of the Indian population, are able to vote and that elections are conducted in a participatory and inclusive manner and also keeping in mind the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) which India has ratified.
The Centre for Law and Policy Research and the Centre for Internet and Society have released a report that makes several important recommendations for improving electoral access. The EC should use this report and other reports that capture the experiences of voters with disabilities, along with a concerted effort to focus on disability voting concerns to identify the challenges related to physical, architectural, technological and attitudinal barriers to voting and to develop solutions to improve the experience, and protect and ensure the rights of voters with disabilities and all voters. There is a need to improve access for the millions of voters with the full spectrum of disabilities and the 2014 general elections are an opportunity to take steps to rid the system of all its biases and barriers.
(The writers are with the Centre for Law and Policy Research)