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Election Commission's accessibility promises ring hollow in second phase of voting

India witnessed a record turnout of 66% in the second phase of voting for 95 seats in the Lok Sabha elections. The numbers may be good for the disabled community, the reactions were mixed, dominated largely by disappointment.

Many disabled voters said that the Election Commission's many facilities remained on paper. NewzHook has put together reactions from different cities where voting was held.

Deepak Nathan, president of the 3 December Movement, said there was complete mayhem in Chennai South due to lack of proper information.

"We were being given incorrect information about booth accessibility. In most places there are no ramps and the ones that existed were not complete and inadequate", said Nathan. "There was no wheelchair at the polling booth that could have been used by disabled voters and no volunteers to help the voters either". Worse, he said, was that police personnel deputed at the booths were misbehaving with disabled people.

The problem seems to be one of poor coordination between local disability departments and EC authorities. The result was confusion and in some cases, complete callousness as was the case with Rafiq Ahamed from Tiruvarur who waited for hours at the polling booth for a wheelchair. He finally had to crawl up the steps to cast his vote.

"I had registered on the PwD app and raised a request for a wheelchair and still got no facilities at the polling booth", he says. "I am disappointed that the advancement in technology has failed this time as well to make the elections accessible for people like me."

Ahamed's experience is not an isolated one with physically disabled voters in many booths saying they had to crawl through the steps for want to assistance and wheelchairs.

listed the various issues that were faced by voters with disabilities all over the state particularly in the booth located at St Beads Anglo Indian School.

Almost 99.9% of the booths were inaccessible. Only some schools that already had ramps were a little different. The police personnel gave a rude response to voters with disabilities who were seeking help. The electronic voting machines were also placed at a high level and people with disabilities, including those with dwarfism, found it very difficult to vote. The polling booth officers were not able to give out correct information to voters and refused to make accommodations in case the polling was on 1st floor. - Simmi Chandran, President, TamilNadu Handicapped Federation Charitable Trust

Disappointment all around

Even in booths where posters were displayed claiming wheelchairs were available, there were no wheelchairs or volunteers present.Visually impaired voters too faced many issues. Raghu Kalyanaraman, who is visually impaired said the Braille sheet he was given was in a poor shape. "I was only given a Braille sheet when I asked for it, and that too was hard to read as the staff had not handled it properly. The sheet should not have been folded or pressed out but it seems that they had kept some heavy objects on the sheets making them difficult to read. The polling booth officers were also rude and impatient and did not want to give out clear instructions to blind voters."

There were issues with the pathway as well, he adds. "Overall nothing was really any better than previous elections. It would be better if the EC would do some research at the ground level to understand the realities as the socio environmental hurdles still remain the same. "

Rajiv Rajan of the Ektha Foundation in Chennai had some strong words too.

"If I have to give marks on scale of 10 I would not be giving more than 2.5. In a lot of cases, including mine, the basic right secret ballot was denied. The official sent my personal assistant away and passed a comment saying that "People like him would break up the EVM and would create big problem for us". In total, it was only a number unkept promises.

Among those who felt deeply disappointed was Swarnalatha J of the Swarga Foundation, who took to social media to voice her feelings.

"While you were thinking whom to vote, I was thinking how to vote! I'm not the complaining type, but Election Commission of India (ECI) promised 100% accessibility at all polling booths. They promised wheelchairs and volunteers to assist people with disabilities and senior citizens. I found none. ECI disappointed me. These ramps are a joke! I had to seek help from police on duty to lift my wheelchair twice, once to get into the compound and second to get into the building itself and return. Wonder if I could once in my lifetime vote with dignity."

Harsh words perhaps but the disappointment is understandable given the many promises and commitments made to "Leave No Voter Behind".

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