by Sophie Chester-Glyn
June 8 could be a landmark day. In the days following the news of the snap election, staff at Manor Community, the care and support service I run in Bristol, set about planning how to help the people we support to exercise their right to vote.
A recent enquiry by our staff found that several people, including their support networks and even professionals, were under the impression that people who lacked mental capacity in some areas of their lives, require a mental capacity assessment to vote or are not allowed to vote due to their disability.
This perception is of course untrue. In fact the right to vote for everyone is included in Article 3 of Protocol No. 1 of The European Convention on Human Rights.
There is also an extra duty to support people with disabilities to vote in Article 29 (a) United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). The UNCRPD specifically states that we should ensure that “persons with disabilities can effectively and fully participate in political and public life on an equal basis with others”.
Despite this, it appears that not everyone has felt supported to take part in the election process. Whilst some research shows that voting amongst people with learning disabilities appears to be on the up, in comparison to those without a disability the turnout is remarkably low.
Even within our own organisation, whilst enthusiasm to vote has generally been promising, the recent metro mayor elections saw a significant drop in participation. This is something that Manor Community has been trying to change.
Over the past few weeks we have set about planning and organising ways of informing people and their support networks on how they can to vote. One of the first challenges was to dispel the myths that a capacity assessment is necessary in order to vote and also to inspire people to understand the importance of their vote.
One problem was the lack of a comprehensive up-to-date document which we could share. So we quickly set about creating an election information booklet. The aim was to give basic information on the voting choices, where people can seek advice if they are denied their right to vote and to provide practical advice on the various ways of voting.
We also listed the details of the TV debates, key dates such as the registration deadline and some key ideas of how to break down the barriers to voting. Involvement of the people we support in signing off the election guide was crucial. They ensured it was accessible and easy to read and understand.
One of the other issues we found was that people who had not been encouraged to vote in the past had actually disengaged from the process entirely, believing that voting was not something they were expected to do.
We therefore set about dispelling this myth by organising informal election forums. One such forum includes election bingo, election quizzes, word searches and an election bake off where staff bring in different election themed cakes and the people we support judge them. On Monday, with it being the last chance to register to vote, we ran a forum with laptops and extra support staff to help those who had not yet registered.
For people with physical and visual needs, just getting to the polling station can be a barrier to voting too. Not everyone was aware that polling stations would provide wheelchair ramps, disabled parking spaces, low-level polling booths and equipment for voters with visual need.
In fact every polling station must provide at least one large print display version of the ballot paper and a special device so that blind and visually impaired people can vote.
Our managers have made sure to find out who would like support travelling to the polling stations. They’ve also checked that the polling stations have the required visual aids and asked which people would like to travel together to help travel costs and environmental impact.
This has worked well in the past as people have made a day out of voting, including meals out before or after and squeezing in some sightseeing in-between.
We have provided a dedicated email address for people who want more information on how they can vote and to be signposted to further support. We hope that our efforts will make a positive difference in informing and supporting those who may otherwise have been left behind in the voting process.
We hope June 8 will be a landmark day. Not for the fact of there being an unusual snap election, but instead for the number of people with disabilities who are supported to vote.