6 February 2015

Alison Sayer, Chief Executive of Halas Homes, reports back on the All Party Parliamentary Group on Learning Disability meeting on 3 February looking at access to voting for people with a learning disability.

Judging by the full house at the APPG this week it is all but evident to see there is a thirst for people with learning disabilities to cast their democratic vote at the forthcoming general elections. All that may stand in their way are the difficulties they are faced with when trying to either register their vote, getting accessible easy read information or simply gaining the correct advice from the staff at the polling station.

It is a known fact that the number of people with a learning disability who vote is low. The question which arises therefore is how can Government engage more people with a learning disability and facilitate them to vote?

The answer is actually quite simple, as a group of people with a learning disability eloquently and intelligently explained to a room full of people at the Palace of Westminster.

The RT Hon Tom Clarke provided a positive start, expressing clearly that, “Parliamentary parties need to be better at communicating”. And in response, a great demonstration of how easy you can alter things to include everyone and be better at communicating came from the floor when we were asked to use Jazz Hands instead of applause – a fantastic concept involving raising both hands and waving them from side to side to indicate your appreciation of a speaker’s remarks. YES, it is evident when a speech is particularly powerful and you CAN ‘see’ the increased appreciation.

“If more people vote more change would be achieved.”

Lining up to communicate their initiatives to encourage people with learning disabilities to be engaged in the political process were representatives from Mencap (Laura Truswell ), United Response (David Allkins talking about the Every Vote Counts Campaign) and Dimensions UK (Anastasia Jenkins outlining Love Your Vote). Given the evidence presented it’s abundantly clear there has been a lot of excellent work going on by organisations who work with people with a learning disability around voting. However, perhaps the plain truth of the matter was concisely summed up by Anastasia Jenkins when she said, “If more people vote more change would be achieved.” A silent chorus of ‘loud’ jazz hands duly followed.

“We should never get turned away. It’s our human right to vote.”

If it needed to be clearly and concisely explained to Government why there is a significant lack of people with Learning Disabilities using their right to vote, then Louise Cotelo (Mencap Young Ambassador) was the person to do the job. She provided the evidence that it’s not for lack of wanting to cast a vote or even register an intention to do so. Actually for her, and many others, it is really hard to understand the form as there are difficult words on it. She feels excluded and frustrated that staff in polling stations don’t know that a person with a learning disability might need someone to help them in the booths – after all they should surely know it’s her right to have someone with her to help. “We should never get turned away. It’s our human right to vote,” she proclaimed. And another raucous round of jazz hand claps showed the audience to be in agreement.

Mark Harper MP, Minister for Disabled People, had to follow Louise and engage with this political group and he did so by endorsing that it was indeed an absolute right to vote and to cast a vote. We were told that moves were being made to introduce easy read information and that polling stations should be as accessible as is possible. He expressed politicians listen to people who do vote and encouraged the audience to engage with their MPs by attending surgeries and writing to them.

The question time that followed held good evidence that the audience were certainly eager to engage.

Questions were well thought out and Mark Harper answered each and every one with absolute respect. Answers provided included explanations as to how the Fixed Term Parliament Act allowed for a more timely approach to prepare for voting; how the ballot box could be made more accessible (putting a cross instead of a tick made some people feel they didn’t want that person, and, as the box is quite small, is a vote invalid if it isn’t in the box?). Mark was able to confirm that a tick or even a smiley face, in place of a cross on the ballot, would count – as long as the intention is clear, the person counting will try and count the vote.

And so, as the session drew to a close and thank you’s and jazz hands rounded things off, it must be said that if this were a typical representation of people with learning disabilities and these barriers are addressed then there will be a lot more people voting at the forthcoming elections.

Alison Sayer,
Chief Executive, Halas Homes