With dedicated support from charities, many more people with learning disabilities voted in the May general election. Natalie Valios reports
The 2005 general election saw 61% of the adult population vote. Although disappointing, this far outstripped the 16% of learning disabled people supported by the charity United Response who went to the polls in that year.
In this year’s election, the overall turnout figure had crept up to 65%. Next week, United Response will reveal that turnout among its service users more than doubled to 39%.
The reason for the increase lies with Every Vote Counts, a project launched in February 2007 by the charity with funding from the Electoral Commission. The aim was to help people with learning disabilities have a say in the political decisions that affect their lives, including by voting.
Su Sayer, United Response’s chief executive, says: “Many people with learning disabilities are interested in local politics as well as national politics. They want to have a say in things that affect their lives but they find the literature is sometimes inaccessible and difficult to understand, with confusing words and a lot of jargon. And they don’t know how they can talk to their MP.”
The parliamentary outreach service, which spreads awareness of the work of parliament and encourages engagement between the public and the two houses, spoke at the project’s launch about how it works to ensure the material it produces is accessible to everyone.
Clare Cowan, head of the outreach service, was pleased to support the United Response project: “It’s a worthwhile campaign and many MPs were keen to be involved. We want to encourage engagement from all sectors of the population.”
The project had a two-pronged approach producing accessible information for learning disabled people and raising awareness among MPs and local authorities.
An interactive guide for learning disabled people included an explanation of democracy, why it matters and how people can take part. It used simple language, video, audio and visual cues and was available in a printed guide, a CD-Rom and online.
Making Democracy Accessible guides were distributed to every MP and local authority in England to provide practical tools to make information accessible.
One of Yosief Semere’s United Response support workers accompanied him to the polling station to read out the names of the parties on the ballot paper. Semere had already decided whom he wanted to vote for but, without this support, he wouldn’t have understood which candidate was which because the writing was too small, the symbols weren’t in colour and the surnames came first, which made it confusing. He wanted to vote because “everyone has the right to speak up for themselves”.
In future, he says, “there needs to be more pictures and bigger writing to say who [the candidates] are on the ballot paper”.
Semere is clear what he wants the government to do: “London Underground maps need to be bigger and train and bus timetables need bigger writing to make it easier for people to know where they want to go. There should be more lifts and toilets at stations and shops. More police on the streets would make me feel safer.”
Running parallel to the Every Vote Counts project was the Get My Vote campaign from learning disability charity Mencap, which also aimed to make democracy more accessible. Voting figures for the people Mencap supports rose to 31% at the election.
Mencap and United Response worked together to successfully lobby the three main political parties to publish easy-read manifestos, which Mencap assisted them in producing. This was the first time all parties had done so, making this year’s election probably the most inclusive ever.
The campaigns have paved the way for people with learning disabilities to engage in the democratic process, but both charities say the momentum needs to continue if more are to be encouraged to participate.
Mark Gale, campaigns and policy officer at Mencap, says: “Democracy isn’t just every five years. By continuing the engagement we have with the parliamentary outreach service and the good links with MPs – about 60 MPs elected this year signed a pledge for accessible materials – then that means [people with learning disabilities] are involved at all times, rather than just making a push when it’s time for an election.”
Sayer adds: “It’s everybody’s human right to be able to vote and have a say in their future and the things that impact on them. This is not a campaign that is going to end.”
This article is published in the 1 July 2010 edition of Community Care under the headline “Yes we can”