Special mobile apps, software, infrastructure, training for personnel and feedback mechanisms have been created to make voting easier for persons with disabilities.
While the 2017 assembly elections in UP, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Manipur and Goa seem to be hitting new lows in terms of political rhetoric and insinuations, not everything about them is vulgar and depraved. Behind the scenes of political fanfare, a motley group of persons with disabilities and some well-meaning officials have been working closely with the Election Commission to ensure that this exercise in electoral franchise is also remembered as one that allowed a large number of persons with disabilities to vote without any impediment.
Right from upgrading the different states’ electoral commission websites to make them more disabled-friendly, to creating mobile apps for mapping PwDs locations and encouraging them to step out, a variety of steps are being taken to include more people in the electoral process.
Besides this, for the first time the EC will issue voter slips in Braille and newly recruited government officials are also being trained to assist voters with disabilities at the booths. Additionally, ramps, for easier mobility, are becoming a regular feature of these elections, and door partitions are being done away with to allow people on wheel-chairs easy access to the polling booths. Finally, special feedback slips have been prepared to get feedback from persons with disabilities to improve provisions in the future.
What has made the entire exercise so fascinating this time is that a large number of persons with disabilities, working with various organisations or as administration officials in the states, have been involved in the planning and implementation of this exercise.
Officers in Azamgarh lead by example
One such official is Suhas L.Y., the district magistrate of Azamgarh in UP, a constituency which will go to the polls on March 4. Suhas, along with Ritu Suhas, another civil servant and nodal officer for the Systematic Voters’ Education and Electoral Participation (SVEEP) in Azamgarh, developed an app for persons with disabilities called Booth Dost, which helps a person locate his booth and booth level officer and vice versa and also look up the facilities offered at the given booth in light of his or her disability.
The app also provides Google map locations of the booths and has helped link 30,583 voters with disabilities in the region. Talking about the initiative, Suhas told The Wire: “So far we have done quite well with regards to the Booth Dost programme. We have the highest number of PwD voters in UP… We had conducted door to door surveys and identified voters with disabilities and had mapped them. We also linked them to the booth and put in the details in a mobile application.”
Training hands and winning trust
To motivate the voters, Suhas – who won gold in the Asian Para-Badminton Championship in November 2016, said, “every PwD voter is also being given a pink colour ‘vishwas parchi’ (trust slip) which shows that the administration is concerned about them. Then 600 newly recruited lekhpals (accountants with the revenue department) will help out the PwDs at the polling centres.”
“For the first time in India,” he said, “Braille voter slips have also been introduced. It gives out the number and name of the booth and the number of vote. It is an inclusive exercise.” And to ensure that voters do not face any trouble at the booths, he said: “We are ensuring ramps [are constructed] at all the booths and we are not partitioning the doors so wheelchair-bound people will also be able to ingress and egress with ease.”
Icons and role models being used as motivators
As part of the exercise, the administration has also been using its visually impaired district icon Vibha Goel, to not only motivate persons with disabilities but also to design dresses for the SVEEP workers. Incidentally, these dresses are being made using the dying craft and block print style of ‘Mubarakpur handloom.’ Other persons with disabilities have been designated as Booth Ratnas to motivate other voters at the block level.
Meanwhile, in Delhi, Dr. Satendra Singh, associate professor of physiology at the University College of Medical Sciences and Delhi’s GTB Hospital, and a person with disability, has along with Prashant, whose vision is 80 % impaired, helped the Election Commission of India conduct a workshop on web accessibility in which officers from the poll-bound states were trained on various aspects of making the exercise more meaningful for persons with disabilities.
Singh said officers from UP, Uttarakhand and Manipur, and even from Gujarat – which goes to polls later in the year – participated in the workshop. Those from Punjab and Goa could not attend it as it was held quite close to their polling day.
Upgrading websites, rectifying problems
“Most of the officers had a technical background and knew quite a bit about it. We told them that if there are visually impaired voters or those with colour blindness then various provisions would be needed to help them access the websites of the Election Commission. Prashant told them that till now most sites were using JAWS (Job Access with Speech) software, which was a costly one, but now we have an open access office which is freely available. We demonstrated its use and told them how to identify the problems faced by the visually impaired.”
Singh said the officers were also showed the websites of the election offices of the five poll-bound states and how to rectify the problems persons of disabilities face in using them. He said the officers from Gujarat actually gained a lot from the event as they are in the process of changing their website.
Checklists and feedback forms are the way to go
Smitha Sadasivan from the Disability Legislation Unit, in Vidyasagar, Chennai, who is also a member of Disability Rights Alliance and in a wheelchair herself due to multiple sclerosis, has also been instrumental in making the elections more inclusive. She had worked on creating access audit checklists which are helping the booth-level officers identify the areas that need work for making the booths more accessible. She has also assisted in developing a feedback form which seeks responses from persons with disabilities about the problems they face.
How much these developments will help the voters will only become known on March 4, when the exercise will be tested in Azamgarh.