Tamil Nadu polls: Activists raise concerns about voting rights of visually impaired

Visually impaired voters will have to rely on bystanders or polling booth staff to help them cast their votes, say disability rights activists.
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For visually impaired voters in Tamil Nadu, a trip to the polling station to cast their vote in the 2021 Assembly elections will not be easy. Many will have to rely on bystanders or polling booth staff to help them cast their votes, say disability rights activists. This is despite the Election Commission’s efforts to release braille Voter Identification Slips (VIS) to improve accessibility and having braille numbers on the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs). 

Though the EVMs have braille numbers, the visually impaired person will not know the order of candidates listed on the EVMs, say activists. “Braille on the EVM only has a number. The visually impaired voter has to cross check, find their candidate, check what number is corresponding to their candidate, and vote that number on the EVM. But this functions on the premise that each booth has a braille ballot paper, which is not necessarily the case,” says Vaishnavi Jayakumar, a member of Disability Rights Alliance (DRA).

Braille voting ballots were introduced first in the Uttar Pradesh Lok Sabha elections in 2019 by the Election Commission. However, the activist pointed out that braille ballot papers haven’t been of much use as not all poll stations stocked them, “Most polling staff are unaware about them or haven’t been trained for its use,” alleged Vaishnavi.

This is why visually impaired voters have to rely on the candidate list released by the office of the Chief Electoral Officer, Tamil Nadu. The list will be in the same order as the candidate list in the EVMs, thus assisting the blind voter to choose a candidate of their choice. However, activists say that the candidates list released before the election is only available as images stored in PDF formats, which are not readable by any text to speech apps.

Even on the eve of the polling date on April 5, Vaishnavi was running pillar to post trying to get the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer to upload a soft copy of the candidate list on their website. “The soft copy file will be readable by a text to speech applications used by the visually impaired. But only the PDFs with image files of the candidate list are available. The text to speech app won’t read them,” said the activist, while adding that several efforts were made to contact TN Election Commission officials but to no avail.

Vaishnavi also pointed out that the inability to know the candidate order in the EVMs, compromises the visually impaired voters’ right for a secret ballot. “These voters will have to rely on bystanders and trust that the person who actually pressed the button on the EVM to honour their wishes,” she adds

For the 2021 Assembly elections, the Election Commission had claimed that they will release Braille Voter Information Slips (VIS). The aim was to help the visually impaired electors gain access to voter information such as polling station information, date and time of the poll etc.

“Most young visually impaired voters do not learn braille as they have come to rely more on technology. Braille is just a phonetic code that can be used in any language, but we don’t even know which language they are providing the braille in,” said the activist while adding that the braille is often in English and not in regional languages. 

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