Tamil Nadu

Tamil Nadu Assembly Elections 2021 | How to make elections accessible and inclusive

All set: Polling booth officials being trained on voting procedures in Chennai last week.   | Photo Credit: S.R. Raghunathan

In 2014, a disabled candidate who wanted to file his nomination in Cuddalore to contest in the election found that he couldn’t access the Returning Officer’s room at the Collectorate since it was on the first floor. After deliberations with the Election Commission of India, the Returning Officer set a precedent: He came out of his chamber and went downstairs to collect the nomination from the candidate.

For disability rights activists in Tamil Nadu, it has been years of continuous engagement with the Election Commission and the State government to ensure that both the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections are accessible and inclusive.

T.M.N. Deepak, founder, December 3 movement, who witnessed the incident at Cuddalore in 2014, says both physical as well as process reforms still require equal attention in Tamil Nadu. “A letter written by activist Javed Abidi to the Supreme Court was taken up as a writ petition, and the court order in 2007 resulted in ramps being made mandatory across polling booths. Over the years, there have been considerable such efforts from the disability sector. This year, the Collectors across the State have actively engaged with us,” he says.

Increase in awareness

S. Nambu Rajan, general secretary, Tamil Nadu Association for the Rights of All Types of Differently-Abled and Caregivers, credits the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities with an increase in awareness.

He recalls how in 2011, disability rights activists in the State came together and actively engaged with Election Commission officials to make the elections more accessible.

“There are several aspects that have improved — many booths now have wheelchairs, there are ramps, and we are consulted from time to time. However, a lot of these reforms are limited to larger towns and cities; rural areas are severely lagging behind,” he says.

This year, the disabled, along with senior citizens aged above 80, were given the option of exercising their franchise through the postal ballot for the first time because of the spread of COVID-19. “There could have been better implementation of this initiative. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities highlights the importance of protecting the right of persons with disabilities to vote by secret ballot in elections,” says Mr. Deepak.

The Disability Rights Alliance (DRA) has released the country’s first attempt at an easy-to-read guide for the first-time voters with developmental or psychosocial disabilities. Many voters from institutions in the State have been enrolled, and are expected to vote on April 6.

Targeted interventions

Vaishnavi Jayakumar, a DRA member, calls for targeted interventions and a systemic change to make the electoral process more accessible and inclusive.

“A lot of our efforts are towards making booths more accessible. Several private facilities, which include schools in cities, do not have ramps or have ones that aren’t compliant with the norms. Thankfully, unlike other States, we do not have polling booths on the first or second floor,” she says.

“We have constantly been asking for the Form 7A list of candidates to be made available in an accessible format instead of an image text so that blind people who don’t know Braille can vote independently,” she says.

From exploring options to facilitating conveyance for the disabled to the booths as well as an audio option in the EVMs for the blind who do not know Braille, there are several recommendations that need to be taken up.

“There are 21 types of disabilities, and for years, we have been asking for the voter’s disability to be specified in their EPIC card so that arrangements can be made correspondingly at the booths. This should be done at the earliest,” Mr. Namburajan says.

In 2015, the Election Commission signed the resolution by the Forum for Election Management Bodies of South Asia (FEMBOSA), which has a nine-point agenda on inclusive elections for persons with disabilities. “The Election Commission has been very serious about making elections accessible and inclusive, and continues to pro-actively engage with us,” says Smitha Sadasivam, an accessibility consultant.

Ahead of the 2021 Assembly election in Tamil Nadu, the office of the CEO, which has had an aggressive social media campaign encouraging people to vote, has also released videos for persons with disabilities, highlighting how booths have been made accessible for them.

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Printable version | May 6, 2021 5:50:04 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/elections/tamil-nadu-assembly/how-to-make-elections-accessible-and-inclusive/article34235039.ece

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