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.
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.