February 23, 2017 4:43:56 am
While casting his vote in the municipal corporation elections on Tuesday, Shantanu Ladkat, 30, felt the same way he had felt in earlier elections: he felt discriminated against. Ladkat, who is in charge of the Technical Training Institute run by the Poona Blind Men’s Association, could not cast his vote independently and needed the election officer’s help at the polling booth in Gadital, Hadapsar. “We have made so many advances in technology. So why can’t the government introduce a voice-enabled EVM,” he said. Ladkat, who is visually challenged, is currently studying for a PhD in computer management.
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While equality of opportunity and accessibility have been laid down as mandatory in the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, which came into effect on December 30, Ladkat rued that no voting machine was provided in an “accessible” format for the visually challenged. He pointed out that a voice assistance device on the EVM, or even a ballot paper with the symbols of political parties in Braille, would have helped.
Ladkat, who suffers from retinitis pigmentosa — a degenerative disease that causes severe vision impairment — was in Std XII when he lost his vision. “My parents did all they could for me… they read text books aloud so I could keep up with my studies. It was only later that I learnt about JAWS (Job Access with Speech) – a powerful software that works with a speech synthesiser to improve the productivity level of visually impaired employees, students and other users,” said Ladkat. “I always thought I was… a slow learner as I could not cope with studies earlier. But with all these technology aids, it did not take me long to obtain a Masters degree in Computer Management from Pune University,” he said.
On the basis of his meritorious performance, Ladkat was selected for a PhD programme. “There is no reservation for visually impaired students in the PhD course. My guides selected me and I hope to complete my PhD by 2018, “ said Ladkat, Ladkat now imparts lessons to trainers, to teach computer lessons to 360 visually impaired students at various centres.
However, he added, “My day-to-day challenges continue. As I have the right to vote, I did vote… but instead of feeling elated after exercising my franchise, I felt helpless and vulnerable… In this election, the government has yet again failed us by not providing ballot papers in Braille or even a voice-enabled EVM.”
Other visually impaired voters also share Ladkat’s unhappiness with the process. For over 30 years, Dhanraj Patil, a former Braille instructor at Yeravada jail, has helped prisoners prepare texts like Dnyaneshwari and the Bhagvad Gita in Braille. “But when I had to ask for help to cast my vote, it brought this sinking feeling, about society’s indifference towards the differently-abled,” he said. “Eventually, my wife helped me cast my vote,” said Patil, and expressed hope that the newly-elected candidates would usher in positive changes.
Sundeep Bedi, 49, a visually challenged equity analyst and chief economist at the Intellectual Foundation, said an election officer had helped him cast his vote. “The government needs to be more sensitive to our concerns as even the quality of the Braille embossed on currency notes is poor…,” he pointed out.
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