Tamil Nadu’s disabled community fights to enter electoral politics

Legislative action and grassroots activism are challenging deep-rooted social norms and pushing for the political inclusion of disabled people.

Published : Apr 03, 2024 18:56 IST - 8 MINS READ

Members of various disability rights organisations staging a protest in front of the Collectorate office at Rajaji Salai in Chennai on December 2, 2020. 

Members of various disability rights organisations staging a protest in front of the Collectorate office at Rajaji Salai in Chennai on December 2, 2020.  | Photo Credit: Jothi Ramalingam

In September 2021, A Kavitha (42), a hearing-impaired resident of Navamal Kapperi village in Tamil Nadu’s Villupuram municipality, contested the local body election, marking a watershed moment for the State’s differently-abled community. In fact, this was not Kavitha’s first attempt. In 2011, she had tried to contest a local body election, but the State Election Commission rejected her nomination under Section 33 (3) of the Tamil Nadu Panchayats Act, 1994, which barred individuals with hearing or speech impairments from running for office. Widespread protests by disability rights activists and advocacy groups followed, leading to the amendment of the Act in 2012.

In 2011, Kavitha was not the only contestant of her kind. Nearly 50 individuals with disabilities, all members of a Tamil Nadu NGO called December 3 Movement (December 3 is World Disability Day, and the NGO focuses on empowering people with disabilities), had tried contesting Panchayat elections that year.

In fact, India’s history with inclusive elections dates back to the early years of the republic. One of the country’s first and most well-known disabled politicians was visually impaired Sadhan Gupta (1917-2015), who became a Member of Parliament in 1953. He went on to hold the post of Advocate General of West Bengal. But seven decades later, the disabled community’s presence in electoral politics remains negligible.

Also Read | Enabling the disabled

For decades, Tamil Nadu’s disabled community’s demands for attention were met with apathy, so much so that a report in The Hindu, dated December 2014, noted that when M. Karunanidhi, five-time Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, was bound to a wheelchair, he had to leave the Assembly in anger, saying “It [the Assembly] has no disabled-friendly seating”.

People with disabilities (PWDs) faced challenges even while exercising their franchise because of the absence of accessible polling booths and inclusive procedures such as Braille voting sheets. Chennai alone has 57,000 PWDs, according to the city’s District Election Office. India has around 2.7 crore individuals, or 2.21 per cent of the population, that is identified as disabled, according to a 2011 Census.

The ECI has implemented several initiatives to improve accessibility, such as mapping PWDs by polling station, ensuring ramps at all polling stations, providing Braille features on EVMs, offering home voting facility, supplying wheelchairs, etc. But at the ground level, these are often not implemented. As pointed out by Smitha Sadasivan, a member of the Disability Rights Association, Tamil Nadu, “It is a misconception that ramps alone make polling booths disabled-friendly. Even though [in 2009] the ECI directed the Chief Electoral Officers of all States to prepare Braille candidate sheets, booth officers are yet to receive formal sensitisation and training.”

According to TMN Deepak, a disability rights activist and founder of the December 3 Movement, the EC’s data on the disabled population in Tamil Nadu is “inadequate”. A separate voter list for disabled people does not exist, he said, adding that “The Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPWD) Act (December 2016) mandates not only that all polling stations are accessible but that all electoral materials are easily understandable and accessible to PWDs.”

There is another hitch: the ECI has recognised only 7 of the 21 official types of disabilities. “We have made several attempts to contact the Chief Election Officer, but we have received no response,” said Sadasivan. “Accessibility for disabled voters is often seen as tokenism, merely appeasing,” she added.

In the 2021 Panchayat election, Tamilarasi A., an independent candidate, faced accessibility challenges at the Panchayat office where candidates gathered to select campaign symbols. Tamilarasi has an 80 per cent locomotor disability. “The office did not have ramps. I could not go in. The only remaining symbol was allocated to me,” she said. As Deepak notes, “As an official candidate, Tamilarasi had every right to demand ramps at the Panchayat office. This shows how politicising disability can benefit others.”

Increased political participation

In 2018, the December 3 Movement organised India’s first-ever conference for PWDs. Political leaders such as K. Veeramani, head of social organisation Dravidar Kazhagam, Thirumurugan Gandhi, a human rights activist, G. Ramakrishnan, a member of the CPI(M), and DMK leader Kanimozhi, were in attendance.

Several of the State’s political leaders attended the conference organised by the December 3 movement.

Several of the State’s political leaders attended the conference organised by the December 3 movement. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

Such campaigns are slowly motivating people. Tamilarasi, who hails from Ulagalampoondi village of Villupuram, said, “In Vikravandi town, girls, especially those who are differently-abled, get married after completing Class VIII or Class X. I entered politics to try and change that.” According to Tamilarasi, reservations of seats for disabled people in the national and State legislatures, as well as in the panchayat system, are vital steps to increase their political participation.

According to Tamilarasi, a major reason for the community’s negligible presence in the political arena is the ineffective implementation of laws and government initiatives. “We need disabled people in decision-making positions so that they can formulate policies for the physically and intellectually challenged,” she said.

Deepak points to another important factor: current laws and policies don’t acknowledge advancements in medical technology. “The laws were implemented before these advances existed,” he said, referring to assistive technologies like hearing aids, prosthetic devices, and orthotic devices, which significantly improve disabled people’s ability to participate in everyday activities.

Sadavisan says that the attitude of politicians is also an issue. Some politicians use insensitive language while referring to opponents from the disabled community. “Phrases like “mentally retarded” and “crippled” are used,” she said. “This makes the community apprehensive about entering politics.”

According to Rajiv Rajan, a disability law consultant, who drafted the manifesto for the disabled sector before the 2021 Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly election, restrictive laws hinder political participation and overall empowerment. For instance, he said, the Indian Contract Act of 1872, Section 12, talks about “unsoundness of mind” without providing a proper definition.

That said, the electorate’s views about electing disabled people have changed. According to Deepak, stereotypes and stigma are no longer factors that hinder citizens’ judgments about who they vote for. “Of the 49 people who contested in 2021, nine won. And of the 40 who did not win, one person contested in Velachery and secured nearly 200 votes,” he said.

Advocacy efforts and international treaties 

For transformative change, Deepak stressed the need to politicise the disabled sector, clarifying that this extends beyond mere participation in politics. His efforts with the December 3 Movement encompass intra-party political engagement, sector politicisation, and advocacy for democratic and electoral reforms. Tamil Nadu has a network of disability rights organisations such as the National Platform for Rights of the Disabled, the Disability Rights Alliance Tamil Nadu, and the Tamil Nadu Association for the Rights of All Types of Differently Abled and Caregivers (TARATDAC).

After the 2021 conference, the December 3 Movement issued the Chennai Declaration urging a mandated 5 per cent reservation for disabled individuals in all local government bodies under the Panchayat Raj Act. Interestingly, it was only in 1993 that a separate Directorate for the Rehabilitation of Differently Abled Persons was established in Tamil Nadu, by partitioning the Directorate of Social Welfare. The following year, the Tamil Nadu government released a comprehensive policy for the welfare of PWDs in the State.

In 1999, in accordance with the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act of 1995, this Directorate was elevated to the Office of the State Commissioner for the Differently Abled, with an IAS officer as State Commissioner, all thanks to the widespread advocacy efforts of disability rights activists. Deepak says attempts are ongoing to appoint a disabled individual to the currently vacant Commissioner’s position.

Nationally, the Centre has implemented various measures to facilitate and establish inclusive environments for the community, including ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPWD) Act in March 2007 and enacting The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act in 2016.

But a lot remains to be done, say activists.

Manifesto for and by the disabled community 

On February 29, focussing on the upcoming general election, disability rights groups, led by the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP) in collaboration with the National Disability Network (NDN), launched a Manifesto For and By Citizens with Disabilities. The manifesto, drafted after gathering inputs from over 10,000 individuals with and without disabilities over the past year, stressed socio-political inclusion as a key demand.

It urged political parties to prioritise the integration of PWDs into their upcoming five-year action plans, proposing that 5 per cent of budgetary allocations be earmarked for them. Also, it called for amending Article 15 of the Constitution to include the term “disability”, introducing a 5 per cent reservation for PWDs in governance, and reserving seats in the Rajya Sabha for nominated PWD representatives by the President of India.

Also Read | Reservations in Tamil Nadu: Then and now

Step Forward

In Tamil Nadu, activists and political participants among PWDs are pushing for government-driven initiatives and policies, particularly reservations, to establish an inclusive and equitable space in politics. To position community members as potential electoral candidates, they must first be recognised as essential constituents of the electorate, and accessible voting mechanisms are paramount to achieving this goal, says the community.

According to Tamilarasi, although the prospects of seeing disabled people contest in the forthcoming Lok Sabha election are slim, there is “hope for the years to come in the State Assembly election and Panchayat elections.” Although the disabled community in Tamil Nadu has secured hard-won gains, its fight to participate equally in the political landscape is far from over.

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