People with learning disabilities need more information to help them vote

With less than a year to go until the general election, politicians and electoral officials must do more to drive up votes

. Photograph: Cecilia Colussi/ Demotix/ Corbishar
There are many barriers preventing people with learning disabilities exercising their right to vote. Photograph: Cecilia Colussi/ Demotix/ Corbis

So many major news stories emerged from this year’s local and European elections – from Ukip’s European triumphs to the woes of the Lib Dems and Nick Clegg – that one local controversy went relatively unnoticed. This was the allegation – made by local Labour MP Kate Green – that an unnamed councillor in Trafford had been heard to say in a polling station that a person with a learning disability “shouldn’t be voting”. To her credit, returning officer Theresa Grant immediately launched an investigation into the matter.

We don’t yet know exactly what happened in that incident, but if such a remark was uttered it would be deplorable, but not as shocking as it should be. Sadly, many people still believe that people with learning disabilities or mental health needs shouldn’t have the right to vote, which is one of the many factors why they vote in far lower numbers than the rest of the population.

Nor is it just electoral officials who express such opinions, though their positions of authority make their attitudes particularly worrying. During the last general election, United Response spoke to one woman in east London with a mild learning disability who was hugely interested in politics, and able to discuss the intricacies of the rivalry between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair in the kind of detail that would put most of the country to shame. Yet when asked whether she voted she said no: “My mother always said that wasn’t for me.”

Such entrenched attitudes – which linger among some electoral officials, families, social care workers and people with learning disabilities themselves – need to be confronted. Everyone who works with people with learning disabilities, particularly local authorities and those involved in elections, should ensure they are familiar with the 2006 Electoral Administration Act and the 2005 Mental Capacity Act. The former finally stripped out the ugly archaism that barred people described as “idiots and lunatics” from voting. The latter made it clear that if a person can indicate a preference for an electoral candidate in any way then they are likely to “pass the test” to vote.

However, even when everyone understands that people with learning disabilities have the right to vote, there are still many barriers to actually using that right. Before the last election we worked with the Electoral Commission on our Every Vote Counts campaign to drive up voting. We found that one of the biggest obstacles was the complexity of the voting process and the inaccessible way in which politicians and political parties communicate. Most voters with learning disabilities simply didn’t get enough information to help them vote.

We, and other campaigning organisations, have tried to make politics more accessible by producing “easy read” guides to voting. Easy read means using simple language with visual illustrations, and it can benefit people with visual impairments, low literacy, those who speak English as a second language, as well as people with learning disabilities. At United Response we have created Easy News, an easy-read newspaper, to give everyone a fair chance to learn about what is happening in the world and to vote based on that information. Easy News just won a national Charity Award, a testament to the work of UR consultants, the team of people with learning disabilities who work so hard on it.

However, charities can only do so much. The real progress will happen when all the political parties make more effort to produce accessible information and begin to reach out to learning disabled voters. At the last general election, the three main political parties listened to our arguments and produced easy read manifestos. However, most candidates’ websites, leaflets and other materials remain swamped in small print and jargon which effectively lock out people with learning disabilities, and many others. Making them easier to understand could persuade many people to vote who otherwise wouldn’t.

Candidates could reach out to local charities and advocacy groups, and arrange to meet potential voters with learning disabilities face to face. At the last general election, some of our staff even took the initiative of holding a special hustings where different candidates had the chance to make their arguments. It was a very successful event.

There is still some time before the next general election, but a lot of work needs to be done to promote equal voting rights. That work begins by sending out the message to officials that people with learning disabilities should not be discriminated against in polling stations, but certainly doesn’t end there. Every day counts between now and May 2015 if we are to make it the most inclusive election in our history.

Su Sayer is chief executive of United Response, which has created a 10-point election planner to help charities and advocacy groups prepare for the election, which may also help local authorities, politicians and electoral officials.