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Election Commission falls short of accessibility goals, faces heat from disability rights groups

The Story of the Week is on the elections and just how accessible the entire exercise has been for the disabled community around India.

The general elections are coming to a close with just one more phase left on 19 May. There was an impressive turnout witnessed from the disabled community with the Election Commission of India (ECI) making special efforts to make voting accessible,

So, how has it panned out on the ground? Well, the views are rather mixed.

Let's look at the phase that ended most recently on 12 May in New Delhi where voters across many stations complained of lack of ramps. This was one aspect that had been highlighted on social media and various meetings but on the ground, many voters struggled to enter voting booths.

Nipun Malhotra, the well-known disability rights advocate, voiced his anger and disappointment at having to be lifted up to the voting booth.

I cast my vote at the National Media Centre in Gurgaon and was shocked to see the steep steps to reach the voting machine. When I asked them if a wheelchair ramp was available, I was told it was not there. I had to be lifted up by a couple of people who accompanied me to the booth. I never got any help from the officials. I asked them if Braille facilities were available as promised by the ECI and officials were not even aware of what Braille facilities are. It was extremely disappointing. A disabled person must have the right to vote with dignity. I was shocked by the lack of infrastructural facilities at booths. The attitudes and lack of sensitisation of officials were also disappointing. - Nipun Malhotra, CEO, Nipman Foundation

The apathy of ECI officials was widely reported by many disabled voters. Ironically, the ECI later issued a statement thanking officials, volunteers and security personnel at polling booths for their extraordinary efforts to ensure elections were smooth and accessible for voters with disabilities.

The situation was not the same everywhere though. Some voting stations did get it right as Anirban Mukherjee, a visually impaired member of the National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled (NPRD) pointed out. Mukherjee cast his vote from Hooghly, West Bengal. Anirban voted easily as his booth had Braille facilities. However, he said there were cases where disabled people struggled.

"In many booths in West Bengal, there were no wheelchair ramps. A visually impaired friend of mine could not cast her vote because the polling booth officials refused to hand the ballot papers to her. They said that it would take up too much of their time, he said.

In Chennai, Satish Kumar, a wheelchair user Chennai, had a tough time too. while his booth at SVET College had a ramp, it was too steep. "This was the case during the last election as well and no one had bothered to change this. I had to take someone's help to enter the polling booth. There was no space between the voting machine and the walls and I could not fit in my wheelchair in between the space. The officer at the booth told me that she will press the voting machine button for me, but I refused, said Satish.

Barring occasional moments, it seems to have been a case of more misses than hits by the ECI on the accessibility count. This will hopefully lead to some introspection to prevent a repeat in the future.

ALSO READ: Make elections accessible, disability rights groups tells Election Commission of India

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