Crossed off

If politicians are serious about improving life for people with
learning difficulties, why did they ignore them during the General
Election? John Pring reports.

“It’s just rubbish. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s like
gobbledegook!” It is hardly the first time election literature has
been described in such terms, but for this particular voter, Julie
King (not her real name), the frustration was almost tangible.

King has a learning difficulty, and for her and many others like
her, the weeks leading up to June 7 were characterised by a growing
awareness of a forthcoming election, but a vague suspicion that no
one wanted to talk to her about it. However, she found out about it
– seeing it mentioned on Coronation Street, seeing posters
in windows, receiving a leaflet through her letterbox, or watching
stories about Tony Blair and William Hague on the television news –
she certainly knew the General Election was happening.

But out of the million or so adults with learning difficulties
like Julie who had a vote, it has been estimated that only
something like 5 per cent will have used it. Many of this 5 per
cent will simply have been told how to vote by their parents or
carers. Others will have made a vague guess where to put their
cross, or ended up spoiling the ballot paper through confusion. As
one man recalls: “When you go in, they tick your name off. It’s
very hard to fill the form in… I don’t know who the people are
and I can’t read the names.” Another adds: “I don’t go to vote. My
mum and dad have my vote. I like to vote for Labour… I think that
it’s Labour.”

This is the situation that Skills for People – a Newcastle-based
organisation, run by and for people with learning difficulties,
with the aim of enabling such people to have more control over
their lives – set out to address. The discussions held by the group
in the weeks leading up to the General Election, showed two things:
firstly, nobody talks to people with learning difficulties about
politics; secondly, there is a huge potential interest in the

As one member puts it: “We should talk about the big things.
People should tell us. Otherwise we won’t know.” So if there is
this latent interest, why don’t people with learning difficulties
talk about politics?

Irene from Skills for People sums up the situation perfectly at
one of the meetings: “They might not know about it. I don’t know
about it, so how can I talk about it? We don’t talk about things we
don’t know about. Services and supporters don’t expect us to be
interested. They think that people with learning difficulties can’t
vote because they are slow and might be backward.”

Clearly, elections are not designed to be accessible to people
with learning difficulties. The parties’ manifestos and leaflets
are poorly laid out, with small typefaces, and pictures that
decorate the text rather than clarify the words. They are also
crammed full of jargon, and bloated with long, tortuous sentences.
Another Skills for People member describes one such pamphlet: “They
use long words and words I don’t understand. There’s just lots of
pictures of him smiling at people on this one.”

The actual process of voting became slightly easier this year,
thanks to the Representation of the People Act 2000, which includes
a measure allowing people with learning difficulties to be assisted
by a carer when they vote. But there are still many parents and
carers who believe their children or clients are not capable of
voting. And polling stations can still be intimidating places to
those with learning difficulties who have never used them

So what did the main political parties do to secure these
hundreds of thousands of potential votes? Incredibly, almost
nothing. The Elfrida Society, a charity for people with learning
difficulties in north London, asked the four largest parties to
produce their key election policies in an easy words and pictures
format. The society is a third of the way through a three-year
project to encourage democratic participation, on behalf of the
Moderate Learning Disability Alliance.

Bizarrely, for a party that recently produced a white paper on
learning difficulties called Valuing People (“Key
considerations”, 14 June),1 Labour said it could not
afford to produce an accessible manifesto, even though all the
charity was looking for was a brief summary of key policies,
written in simple language. Rosemary Tilley, a democratic
participation development worker with The Elfrida Society, says:
“All the Labour Party banged on about was cost – they couldn’t
afford to do it.” They even charged the charity £2.50 a time
for audio (but still inaccessible) versions of the main

The Conservatives produced nothing, although they did come up
with a separate manifesto for people with learning difficulties,
which was not written in accessible language, thereby managing to
combine arrogance and ignorance. As Tilley says: “I sat down with a
discussion group and what they wanted to talk about was asylum
seekers and Euros. These are people whose ideas are not at all
restricted [to disability issues], and neither should they be.”

It was the smaller parties that came closest to producing the
goods. The Liberal Democrats and Green Party both delivered
reasonably accessible manifestos, as promised, despite
comparatively tiny election budgets. The comments of some of those
people with learning difficulties who read these two accessible
versions show clearly what a vital tool they could be in the
future: “I can understand what they are saying,” says one. “The
headings are clear,” says another. “Is that all there are? Where
are the others?” was a third, pointed, comment. “This was an
opportunity for all the parties to reach a bunch of voters who no
one has bothered to talk to,” says Tilley.

“I think the Green Party and the Lib Dems were more of a mind to
see that it was a good thing to do for its own sake and also
realistic enough to think, ‘we are very stupid if we ignore this
bunch of voters’.” She describes the efforts of the Labour and
Conservative Parties as arrogant. “It is ludicrous to at least not
to attempt to spread the word more widely. There is a whole bunch
of people they are not trying to reach.” For many people with
learning difficulties, a chance to have their opinions taken
seriously is a rarity.

Tilley found that it only took a session or two to bring out a
refreshing enthusiasm for discussing politics, far removed from the
widespread cynicism and apathy found elsewhere among the
electorate. Her most regular contributors soon changed from “rather
blank but polite responses” to “coming up and telling me things and
venturing opinions. With input and opportunity, people certainly
can develop opinions and get comfortable about expressing

Members of Northampton People First also carried out work on
democratic participation before the election. They, too, were
disappointed with the response. Craig Hart, the group’s vice
chairman, invited all the candidates for the two local
parliamentary seats to attend a hustings for people with learning
difficulties. Only two turned up. “All the work I did and it was
down to two. I think they should make more effort,” he says. The
Green Party took the largest strides of any political party by
selecting Simone Aspis, a disability rights campaigner who also has
learning difficulties, as a candidate in the General Election and
its national spokesperson on disability issues. She polled 4.7 per
cent of the vote in her London seat, Brent East. The Greens were
already way ahead of the three larger parties, having produced
accessible campaign information for last year’s Greater London
Assembly elections.

Although she believes her party could have worked harder to
deliver its accessible General Election manifesto to more people
with learning difficulties, Aspis still had many requests from
around the country for the document. Next time, she says, the party
will make even more of an effort. The Liberal Democrats only sent
out about 50 copies of their accessible literature, mainly
following requests from day centres, charities and pressure groups.
But a party spokesperson says: “This was a bit of an experiment.
There has been such a big response we will try and get it out to
more people next time round.”

Both the Conservatives and Labour say merely that they will
examine the possibility of an accessible manifesto next time.
Neither party seem remotely enthused by the prospect. Members of
Skills for People are certainly not prepared to sit back and accept
this situation. They are planning a local campaign, joining up with
other disability groups to challenge the main parties to make a
commitment to accessible materials. Tricia Webb, chief executive of
Skills for People, says: “Disabled people have both the Disability
Discrimination Act and the Human Rights Act to fall back on, and
legal action certainly is not out of the question.”

If politicians are not to fall foul of the law, they will have
to start accepting people with learning difficulties as valid
members of the electorate. This means plain English, easy format
manifestos; more accessible voting procedures; and more of an
effort to get their message out to day centres, clubs, residential
homes and voluntary organisations. The first party to reach out to
this constituency could reap huge rewards. It is time Labour proved
that its heavily trumpeted commitment to social inclusion really
does apply to people with learning difficulties. Otherwise,
incidents such as the following, recalled by a member of Skills for
People, will remain depressingly the norm. “My MP dropped a leaflet
off,” he says. “He rang on the doorbell, but when I answered it, he
walked away. I think he was embarrassed.”

1 Department of Health, Valuing
, The Stationery Office, 2001.

Skills for People can be contacted on 0191 281 8737 or at

The Elfrida Society’s Democratic Participation project can be
contacted on 020 7359 7443 or at

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.