During the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, when Apoorva Gore (29) went to Alpha College in Vile Parle to cast his vote, the polling booth was on the first floor. There was no ramp or lift. Gore, who is wheelchair-bound due to a spinal cord injury, returned without voting. This time, too, the Vile Parle polling booth is located on the first floor. “My spinal cord injury can worsen if I am mishandled while being carried. I can’t risk more damage to my back for a vote,” he says.
Like Gore, many say the voting experience is not a friendly one for the differently-abled. Sumaiya Sadeeq Khan, who suffered a spinal cord injury 11 years ago, has recently started using a wheelchair for mobility. This will be the first time she will vote. But when her husband went to inspect Vikhroli Parksite Municipal school, their polling station, he found no lift or ramp. “I don’t know how I will vote, there is no way the wheelchair can be mounted on stairs, and being mounted on a chair is risky,” she says.
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Though the Election Commission (EC) introduced measures to make polling more accessible, including putting braille on ballot units for visually-impaired people, accessibility to booths remains a problem.
Gore tried registering himself on EC’s Persons with Disability mobile application for transport, but there were technical issues. He says polling stations for handicapped voters must be located on the ground floor.
According to rights activist Vaishnavi Jayakumar, data from EC shows at least 3,000 polling stations are either on the first or second floors in Maharashtra. Mumbai has 368 polling stations not situated on the ground floor and Pune has 322. There are at least 7,162 registered differently-abled voters in Mumbai.
Nilesh Singit, the Election Commission’s ‘icon’ for making elections accessible, says poor facilities also hamper the confidentiality of a differently-abled voter. “I remember people who helped me till the polling booth also tried to influence who should I vote for,” said Singit, who is wheel-chair bound.
In 2004, Singit had filed a PIL at the Bombay High Court, after which the EC introduced ballot units with braille for visually-impaired people in Maharashtra.
“There have been improvements since then but issues persist. These are government schools and colleges, which should ideally have ramps for disabled people, be it elections or no elections,” he said.
Sonali Muley, deputy collector of Mumbai suburbs, said, “There are several polling stations on the first and second floors. We have arranged for chairs and four volunteers to carry those who need help.”