Thursday, September 28, 2023

Accessible elections

In early August, the office of the State Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities reminded the Chief Electoral Officer of Nagaland to take all measures to enable all voters with disabilities to exercise their franchise without any obstacles or barriers. These measures, the Commissioner asserted, are in line with the Election Commission of India’s strategic framework on accessible elections. The features of the ECI’s strategic framework on accessible elections include advisory to political parties, pre-poll and poll day preparation/facilitation, training/sensitisation, physical access and facilities at polling stations, etc. Also, the ECI has advised the political parties to provide their constitution and manifestoes in an accessible format and make their websites accessible for all persons with disabilities (PwDs). As per the strategic framework, all political consultations and campaigns should be made accessible to PwDs in terms of infrastructure, information and communication and the booth Level agents (BLAs) of political parties may have representation among PwDs. The BLAs and polling agents have been advised to be sensitised about the right to equal participation of PwDs in the electoral process. The ECI framework also called for consolidation of a database of voters with disabilities according to the polling station to facilitate the planning of services to be offered, training and sensitisation of polling personnel, transportation facilities and availability of required volunteers. The idea of accessible elections is not a novel concept anymore. Even before the 2018 elections in Nagaland, activists had pushed for accessible elections. The Government’s track record, unfortunately, is not something to sing about. The United Nations Disability Convention states that PwDs include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments, which, in interaction with various barriers, may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others. Despite the persistent efforts of activists and advocacy groups, the PwD community in Nagaland continues to be excluded from the voting process as the State fails to translate commitments into action. While the Government remains incapable of building accessible infrastructure, voters with disabilities continue to face structural barriers that impede their access to the polling booths as well as the voting process. A fundamental right like voting cannot be constrained for lack of amenities that the institutions mandated to conduct free and fair elections fail to install in time. The institutions are constitutionally and legally bound to ensure that the amenities are in place; failing to do so lays bare their lack of commitment to ensure social justice and uphold the people’s fundamental rights to democratic participation. According to reports, PwDs face various impediments to their voting rights, like lack of secrecy, ballot papers with tactile relief and accessible infrastructure. Lack of tactile relief prohibits them from voting on their own and they have to take the help of others while voting. Lack of ramps leading to the polling stations renders their travel and voting experience less than enjoyable. In most cases, the tables kept at the polling stations are too high for them to use. Lack of sign language interpreters also makes it difficult for those voters with hearing and speech impediments to communicate. Persons with cognitive disabilities find difficulty in identifying the electoral symbols they wanted to vote for. As a result, the secrecy of the voters gets compromised. The State Government, Election Office and the District Administrations should work together to build the infrastructure necessary for ensuring the participation of voters with disabilities in the electoral process. It should begin with working towards enhancing literacy about disability rights and the idea of an inclusive electoral process. Ensuring voting rights for all is not enough; building or enhancing infrastructure to translate the constitutional and legal provisions into action in the field to ensure the dignified participation of the targeted groups is a must.