"Access-friendly polling environment is our democratic right"
CHENNAI: As far as statistics go, theirs is not an insignificant number. However, for more than 13 lakh physically challenged voters of the State, exclusion seems the only reality as far as any polling process goes.
Conspicuous by their absence from the candidates' lists of major parties, they are also excluded from the electoral exercise more by default than by design owing to the lack of a disabled-friendly polling system.
Leave alone the logistical problem of putting up disabled-friendly polling booths in every constituency, even simple issues such as transport (for the orthopaedically handicapped) and understanding a ballot paper (for the visually handicapped) mean more exclusion than inclusion.
The disabled are determined not to give up. At a seminar on 'Political Representation for the Physically Challenged,' organised by Nandini Voice for the Deprived, the Federation of Tamil Nadu Physically Handicapped Associations and the Confederation of Indian Organisations for Service and Advocacy (CIOSA) here on Saturday, they said an access-friendly polling environment was their democratic right.
Even as the former Chief Election Commissioner, T.S. Krishnamurthy, suggested proxy/Internet/postal voting, on an experimental basis, till it was possible to have at least two exclusive booths for the disabled in every constituency, the disabled themselves said rather than being set aside, they should be made part of the mainstream voting process.
"Most poll officers are insensitive to the needs of the physically handicapped. Even when they see severely orthopaedically handicapped persons stranded in a queue ... most of them never extend a helping hand. Most of the booths don't have ramps... Since it is not possible to have ballot papers in the Braille for the visually challenged, most of them opt out as some polling officers do not permit a companion while casting a vote," said T. Gnanasekaran, orthopaedically challenged, who runs a telephone booth near the T. Nagar bus terminus.
"A constituency-wise census of the disabled would enable us to get an exact profile of the disabled in each district and open the eyes of candidates to their needs. The Election Commission has issued instructions that the physically handicapped and senior citizens should not be made to stand in queues... I shall also take up with the Election Commission the issue of separate voter cards. If any of you find the poll officials unhelpful while voting, the Election Commission observers can be approached," Mr. Krishnamurthy said.
"The issue of nominated representation for the physically challenged in Parliament and the Assembly needs to be seriously considered if their political representation is to become a reality. It is virtually impossible now to persuade political parties to choose candidates from among the physically challenged," said N.S.Venkataraman, trustee, Nandini Voice for the Deprived.
G. Chidambaranathan, president of the Federation of Tamil Nadu Physically Handicapped Associations, said: "Countries such as Tanzania and Zambia have created an ... atmosphere for the differently abled to occupy senior positions in the Government. It is essential that we mobilise support from various levels of administration from Parliament to panchayat to ensure the same happens here."
K. Pandiarajan, president, CIOSA, and senior advocates R Gandhi and P.V.Giridhar were present.