Social workers must play an active part in promoting voting rights

Elaine James calls on practitioners to ensure disabled people have equal access to the choices they will make in the 2017 general election

Photo: lazyllama/fotolia

By Elaine James

I love elections. The pre-election debates. Walking to the polling booth and the whole process of casting my vote.  Pulling an all-nighter sitting up to watch as the results come in.  Whatever the outcome, the next morning it always feels like the world has changed and in a small way I was a part of that. A valued citizen whose voice counted.

Imagine, just for one moment, being denied the right to be a part of all that.

At the time of the 2015 general election, I was lucky enough to be working in my last local authority with some brilliant social workers who believed their purpose was to tackle discrimination and uphold people’s rights. Together we felt that the level of disenfranchisement in political and democratic processes experienced by the adults with learning disabilities we were supporting was essentially a breach of their fundamental human rights.

‘Citizens of equal value’ 

The right to register to participate in elections in the UK is determined in law by the Representation of the People Acts 1983 and 2000. As a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the UK is subject to positive obligations to uphold Article 29 CRPD, which states that disabled people have the same right to participate in political and public life as non-disabled citizens.

There is no further requirement.  Nothing more is required to be able to register to vote.  Most importantly for social workers, mental incapacity is not grounds to prevent someone from voting.  Section 73 of the Electoral Administration Act (2006) abolished mental incapacity as being a legitimate reason to prevent a person being able to register to vote or cast their vote.

Why does this matter? Well, to quote Eleanor Roosevelt, human rights begin in the small places. Being seen as a citizen of equal value whose voice counts, and who should be supported and enabled to register to participate like any other citizen, matters. So, in 2015 we decided that with support from democratic services teams and the Parliamentary Ombudsman we would do something about promoting voter registration for people with a learning disability.  We called this Promote the Vote.

‘Worrying findings’

Social workers invited people with a learning disability who were living in the community in supported living or residential care shared homes to attend training on their democratic rights as citizens. We also worked with support staff to find out whether their employer had a policy on voting and what, if any, training they had been provided about voting rights. Our survey was the largest conducted so far, gathering information from 1,111 people with a learning disability, who were living in 139 shared homes. Our findings were both interesting and worrying.

Most worryingly, we found that people living in a shared home with staff who thought that a learning disability affected their mental capacity were significantly less likely to vote. Support staff working in these homes appeared to think that their role was a gatekeeper, protecting people and the public from the impact of learning disabled people voting.

Take the support worker who told us “oh no love, they can’t vote, they have a brain injury”. Another support worker felt that the people in the home they worked in would “vote for who they liked the look of” – clearly feeling that this was somehow different to how everyone else decides and therefore a bad thing.

This means our other key finding is potentially important if learning disabled people are to experience the full range of citizenship that everyone else experiences: we also found that people who were living in shared homes who were made aware of their rights were significantly more likely to vote. This is an interesting finding which raises questions about how we approach our role in working with people and providers to plan support.  How often do we insist and then check on the extent to which support plans uphold fundamental rights as citizens? Or are we satisfied that if basic needs are met that is good enough?

‘Be an active part’

In my current local authority, Bradford, we know what our answer is to these questions.  We aren’t satisfied that meeting basic needs is good enough. We are once again taking action to promote the vote. We are making contact with every supported living house and care home to talk to the people who live there and the workers who support them about the process for voter registration and reasonable adjustments that can be made to help people access polling stations and cast their vote.

So, as you decide whether or not to register to participate in the 2017 general election, please think about your role as a social worker – what can you do to ensure that everyone has equal access to the choice you are making? If the voice of social work is to be both heard and impact on the way learning disabled people experience their rights as citizens, then social work needs to strengthen its approach towards promoting citizenship and be an active part of promoting the right of all people to participate in our democratic processes.

The Electoral Commission promotes resources in easy read format about how to register and cast your vote. The deadline for registering to vote is 11:59pm on Monday 22 May. 

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10 Responses to Social workers must play an active part in promoting voting rights

  1. colsey May 10, 2017 at 1:06 pm #

    in these days of austerity, financial cuts inaction and lack of care from all quarters I would think this is the least of anyone’s worries. they may be lucky to even have a support worker in a few years !

    • Social Worker May 10, 2017 at 5:43 pm #

      Not having support to be an active part of democracy shouldn’t ever be the least of anyone’s worries. Access to care for people who need support is vital of course. Access to democracy to enable voices to be heard and for people to have there say is just as vital and more so in these times.

    • Mark May 10, 2017 at 8:01 pm #

      “The least of anyone’s worries”? really? The most basic fundamental right of human freedom and the individuals right to decide who makes law on their behalf. If people were supported to vote they could make a decision on which party would support them and their beliefs best. Let’s get the basics right. Civil rights & equality!

    • Social worker May 11, 2017 at 1:11 pm #

      Human rights the “least of anyone’s worries”? Is this a joke? The purpose of modern social work IS human rights, is all any social worker should be thinking about.

    • Maggie Turner May 16, 2017 at 1:11 pm #

      Lovely article – lots of the older individuals that I work with have such strong traditions of voting and its essential that this is promoted. I am am member of a political party and we routinely canvass Care Homes. We are often made welcome, we talk to anyone who wants to speak to us, in the communal areas of the Home, and give out posters, leaflets and stickers and its often a high point of the canvass, theres often a good bit of banter and support. There have also been occasisons when we have been denied access – Managers claiming that the residents relations would have to give permission for us to speak with them. That is disenfranchisement and paternalism and negating of people as voters, their status as Care Home Residents trumping everything else. I gave a lift to a woman voter a few years ago, she saw the large sample ballot paper on the wall of the Polling Station and became quite vocal and insistent that she wanted this as her voting slip. The Presiding Officer, quite correctly, took it off the wall, she took it into the booth and I assume cast her vote. Glad she was able to excercise her democratic rights!

  2. Mark May 10, 2017 at 8:03 pm #

    “The least of anyone’s worries”? really? The most basic fundamental right of human freedom and the individuals right to decide who makes law on their behalf. If people were supported to vote they could make a decision on which party would support them and their beliefs best. Let’s get the basics right. Civil rights & equality!

    • Social Worker May 11, 2017 at 1:30 pm #

      Totally right.

  3. Cobby May 11, 2017 at 9:06 am #

    Colsey, its for the very reasons you have stated that we should be thinking about ways to support people with disabilities to understand their right to vote. Most of us that choose to vote do so as a way of democratically stating our opinion based on the voting options. Why should people with disabilities, the very people affected by the points you make, be excluded from having their say at voting time?

  4. The Phantom May 11, 2017 at 1:36 pm #

    I don’t want to start a witch hunt here (sorry Colsey) …..but only by accessing the democratic voting process, can people with disabilities have the currency to make a difference be engaged by the policy makers and possibly save themselves from a life without the support worker/s you alluded too.

  5. Arturo Sensi May 16, 2017 at 9:19 am #

    Such faith in the empowering and social inclusion magic of putting a X in a box every five years. Personally real democracy is when none of us are exploited, our housing not a worry, our benefits not cut, our value measure by our contributions rather than defined by our needs. I assume voting is an easier option than campaigning for true dignity