Voting is the cornerstone of democracy: it should be as inclusive and empowering an activity as possible. I’ve voted over the course of my entire adult life, and feel proud every time I do so. It’s a fundamental way in which I can express my opinion and hold those in power accountable, at local and national level.
But there are some people with learning disabilities, autism and complex needs for whom it isn’t always that simple. Common misconceptions on one hand and longstanding hurdles to participation on the other mean that many individuals with learning disabilities aren’t aware of or able to exercise their right to vote.
But voting is open to all – and this election represents a crucial opportunity to show how we can make this the case in reality, rather than just theory.
Whether or not an individual chooses to vote, it’s vital to make sure that everybody with additional needs knows they have a right to vote and a powerful voice. However, common errors have prevented people from participating in voting in the past. My colleague, Dr Mark Brookes MBE was in this position at one point and, as someone with a learning disability, only voted for the first time 10-15 years ago. Like me, he now feels empowered every time he does vote.
However, in a recent survey conducted by Dimensions as part of its Love Your Vote campaign, 80% of respondents stated that polling stations can be difficult to use for people with learning disabilities. Partly, this stems from the fact that 59% said people working at polling stations often do not make reasonable adjustments, which every person is entitled to in order to make voting comfortable, accessible and rewarding for them.
But whilst important to be mindful of such figures, inspiring stories from around the UK are changing this picture, and provide a source of optimism for the upcoming local elections. My colleague Mark will be volunteering as an observer at his local polling station – ensuring that staff are able to best support people with a learning disability or complex needs. The awareness and education he will bring will be invaluable.
Free resources, such as Dimensions’ voting passport, are also available to help people communicate the adjustments they need to polling staff. James, a 22-year-old man with learning disabilities who communicates using eye gaze technology, uses the voting passport every time he goes to the polling station. James will also be volunteering as an observer at his polling station this year and his story shows why having a learning disability should never be a barrier to taking part fully in elections.
Small changes can make voting a more empowering experience for everyone, not just on polling day but in the run up, too. In fact, 92% of respondents to Dimensions’ survey stated that it was difficult to understand what political parties were saying, but by releasing easy read manifestos as early as possible, everyone can feel prepared and empowered in planning their vote. So, it’s clear that accessible manifestos must be more readily available, with 77% of respondents to Dimensions’ survey stating that they were difficult to find.
On May 6th, everyone can share in the universal and empowering moment of casting their vote and having a say in the running of their local government. While, we are already starting to see encouraging figures, election officials and local authorities should do everything they can to make voting accessible and open to all. An overwhelming number of individuals with learning disabilities are eager to participate in the elections - our work that remains is making sure we give them every opportunity to have their voices heard.
Emma Fraser is deputy chair of the Dimensions Council
Photo: Melinda Nagy / Shutterstock.com