'Loved the experience', say the disabled officials who manned polling booths in Goa elections
One of the standout features of the Lok Sabha polls in Goa this time has been the high participation of people with disabilities. From accessible transport provisions to infrastructure at the booths, election officials did their best to to live up to the Election Commission of India's stated mission to 'Leave No Voter Behind'.
Perhaps the most visible symbol of this reach out to the community was the presence of two booths manned exclusively by disabled officials in both parliamentary constituencies. This was done for the first time ever, and every effort was taken by state election officials to ensure that the experience of the booth officers in these centres was enjoyable and hassle free.
Suraj Naik, an officer at Booth Number 7 at the North Goa constituency says he and his fellow officials were put through intensive training before voting day. "There was a master trainer who guided us for a day on how to operate the electronic voting machine, how to ensure secrecy and the importance of maintaining the register.
This was Naik's first experience doing election duty and he loved every bit of it. "We got a lot of attention from the voters, the officials and the media, which was wonderful. I got to meet so many people, get noticed, and hear so many words of appreciation.
Naik, a stenographer in the civil supplies department of the Goa government was a little worried about the arrangements made for washroom use, etc. as he has a lower right leg and right hand missing, but all the facilities provided, he says, were not only accessible but within reach. "We had the election commission officials supporting us in every way and I look forward to doing this again.
His colleague at booth number 7 Vyankatesh Sawant echoes the sentiments. Unlike Naik, Sawant has done election duty before but this time was different.
"This time I was the Special Presiding Officer of the team and all of us were disabled. My earlier stints were with non-disabled people. The experience has given Sawant, an assistant engineer at the Mapusa Municipal Council, plenty of confidence.
A lot of non-disabled people end up dropping out of election duty at the last minute because you have to go and stay at the centre one day before and undergo some minor inconveniences. But I see this as an opportunity given to us to show our abilities to the world and prove ourselves. I have done election duty earlier and it used to be quite hard because washrooms were not accessible and there were no ramps. This time, the government gave us all the facilities and it was enjoyable. It makes a powerful statement when people see us there on voting day. It's a positive message to the world. - Vyankatesh Sawant, Special Presiding Officer, Booth No. 7, North Goa
Not that the day did not have its challenges, points out Gopal Kerkar, a State Bank of India manager who was among the disabled staffers manning one of the booths. "It was my first time and there were plenty of arguments but as a bank manager I am used to facing people. This was a different kind of challenge. I want to be given this opportunity again and this time I want to be in a booth that has people without disabilities.
Being out there and visible in this manner, says disability rights activist Vishant Nagvekar, will not just build confidence but encourage greater participation by the disabled community in the electoral process and break stereotypes.
"Non-disabled people tend to think there are certain things disabled people cannot do, like election duty because it's tough work. What this has shown is that given the right arrangements and access, we can prove ourselves too. It is great that we got this opportunity to show our ability and is elections are made accessible like this, more disabled people would participate in the process of citizenship.