I plan to vote in the upcoming local elections on 6 May, just as I’ve been voting for the whole of my adult life.
While this statement may not sound particularly surprising, there are many adults with learning disabilities and autism in the UK who cannot say the same applies to them. Many of them have missed out on voting for much of their adult life because of obstacles to participation, while others simply weren’t aware of their right to vote.
Let’s be clear: having a learning disability or autism is no barrier to voting for adults in the UK.
However, in a recent survey launched as part of Dimensions’ Love Your Vote campaign, 80% of respondents said that polling stations can be difficult for people with learning disabilities to use. Moreover, 77% said that it is difficult to find easy-read manifestos produced by political parties – if, indeed, they are produced in the first place.
As someone who has always been proud to vote, this signals need for change. Voting can be so empowering for many people, and it’s vital they know that they can make their voices heard – even if they need a little extra support to do so.
Helping staff to help voters
Staff at polling stations can play a big role in improving accessibility for individuals with learning disabilities and benefit from being trained on the full range of reasonable adjustments they can make for those with complex needs, which would in turn benefit many people whose experience of going to the polling station would be made even better as a result. Indeed, many voters who have learning disabilities or autism already relish the trip to the polling station, so it’s crucial that we keep this route for exercising their democratic right as accessible as possible.
Allowing a carer to accompany them in the polling booth to ensure they can understand the ballot paper before casting their vote is just one reasonable adjustment which can be made for those with additional needs. This is doubly important because the ballot papers are not designed with people with learning disabilities and autism in mind.
Easy-read is an easy solution
Similarly, before we even get to the polling station, small changes can be made which would make a huge difference for many people’s voting experience. Providing a larger polling card, for instance, would make participation more accessible for those who benefit from easy-read materials. In fact, the provision of easy-read versions of all materials used in our democratic process should be made a priority.
As a regular postal voter, it is also clear to me that postal voting can be made more accessible. By making all voting documents, not just ballot papers, larger or easier to read, we can benefit many voters with additional needs who cannot make it to the polling station. Making postal voting accessible is particularly important because, for those who require assistance to communicate their voting preference, it’s the only way they can be assured of its privacy.
People who communicate with the help of eye-gaze technology, for example, would have to say their choice out loud to their carer, potentially being overheard by fellow voters at the polling station. This is something one of my fellow Love Your Vote supporters, James Walker, has picked up on in his own experience of voting using eye-gaze. It’s part of the reason James has become an official electoral observer, so he can help voters who require additional support at his local polling station.
The secrecy of our vote, like our vote itself, may be something many of us take for granted, so we should ensure that everyone can enjoy the same privilege.
Voting is an enjoyable experience for those who do it, and many people with learning disabilities and autism are actually keenly politically engaged. I would encourage anyone who doesn’t vote to do so, as it can be so rewarding simply to have your say and ensure that your voice is heard this election season.
Dimensions provide a free Voting Passport to help those with disabilities to receive the reasonable adjustments they require in order to cast their vote at the polling station.
Emma, in her own words, wear many hats for Dimensions. A member of the Dimensions Council for a number of years, she is currently Deputy Chair of the Council in addition to her role as a Dimensions Quality Consultant. Emma has also sat on several panels interviewing candidates for senior roles within Dimensions, and was previously part of the team who helped introduce autism friendly measures to Salford Library.
Emma has been voting in elections for her entire adult life and is an avid supporter of Dimensions’ Love Your Vote Campaign.