Disabled, but ready to decide India’s future

KOLKATA: Saswati Acharya has had a voting card for 16 years but never cast a ballot. That’s true for 35-year-old Jija Ghosh, 42-year-old Kuhu Das  and nearly 25 lakh adults, who have voting rights without knowing what it means to exercise it. For once, it’s not the nexus between politicians and criminals that has stopped them from voting. The hurdles are societal: the insensitivity to recognise that the election process is beyond the access of those with disability.
This year though, Acharya, Ghosh and Das are determined not to sit idle and see another election go by. They’ve decided to press for their rights. “With India becoming a signatory to the United Nation Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability (UNCRPD) in 2007, the state is legally bound to make the voting process accessible to us,” said Ghosh, a cerebral palsy patient.

The physically challenged could not vote in the past because polling booths were either not on the ground floor or there were no ramps to negotiate steps, those with visual impairment had no Braille. This time though, there is no getting away. “UNCRPD apart, there’s the Supreme Court order of 2004, asking all states to ensure that disabled persons can vote properly,” said Das.

Sayandeb Banerjee voted in the Assembly polls three years ago, but it was an ordeal. When the wheelchair-bound, 32-year-old reached the north Kolkata polling station with his uncle, there was no one to assist him reach the first-floor booth.

“I sat at the foot of the stairs for 90 minutes but none bothered. Only when I threatened to inform the media did the polling officer requisitioned an ambulance and had me stretchered to the first floor. There, an official applied the indelible ink and then asked my uncle to cast the vote as per my wish. Is this the democracy we are proud of 61 years after Independence?” said Banerjee.

Acharya did attempt to vote the first time after she turned 18. But she refused a changdola (offer to bodily lift) to the first-floor booth. “I was so furious, I never voted. Can’t we retain our dignity? I may be disabled today but anyone can be the same tomorrow, either in an accident or by mere ageing,” she reminded.

Disability Activists Forum (DAF) comprising IICP, Human Rights Law Network, Ankur Advocacy Group and other NGOs met joint chief electoral officer N K Sahana recently and pressed for proper arrangements for the disabled to cast their vote. The latter has promised that apart from 150-odd booths in Kolkata, others will be located on the ground floor and have ramps. Braille stickers will be there on EVMs and they will be kept on a low table so that they are accessible to wheelchair-bound voters.

“We have demanded wheelchairs at booths that are not on the ground floor so that disabled voters can be carried up in a dignified manner and not in stretchers,” said DAF president Sujata Parekh.

10 Apr 2009, TNN

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